While many self-taught artists helped define and change our perceptions of the art world, they also had a hand in helping shape and define America. At our current juncture, America appears to be harshly divided, and the question of what it means to be an American is being raised. While the history of America is a tumultuous one, it is a history with a trajectory that moves towards acceptance and freedom on the basis of the diversity that permeates the soil.
John Kane—who immigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania at the age of nineteen in 1879— showed that the emotional connection to the splendor of America’s landscape was not reserved only for those whose birthplace was the United States. In Kane’s “Turtle Creek Valley no. 1,” we see a work of art that unearths the wonder and awe of the land. It is a picturesque scene of the rolling, verdant hills and the train-yards that make up the scenery of Pennsylvania. Given the context of Kane’s life as an immigrant, we get a two-fold definition of what it is that makes America beautiful. There is America’s natural and soothingly visceral beauty, and even more so is the beauty of America’s open arms.
Kane was fortunate enough to have been received by the art world with the same warmth that allowed him to come to America. In 1927 Kane’s work was shown at the Carnegie International, making him the first self-taught artist to have works displayed in a major museum. The recognition of self-taught artists within the art world continued as the century wore on—and this recognition was one of social acceptance and change as well.
William Edmonson—who was born a son of freed slaves in Nashville—was the first black artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA in 1937. His acknowledgment by the mainstream art world also signified a change in social attitudes. Edmondson was affirmed as a vital voice in the art world and that affirmation carries over into the socio-political realm in virtue of his acknowledgment. Although the desegregation process took many years, a gesture such as presenting a black person’s work in a major museum shows that the seeds had been planted and were on their way to bearing the fruit of freedom, inclusion, and unification for all races.
Horace Pippin was a black veteran of World War I who turned to painting in an effort to regain strength in his arm that was injured in battle. Pippin was a man who fought for his country—even though he lived in a time when many would not fight for him or his rights as an American simply due to his race. Pippin sacrificed his life for the open possibilities of freedom that America offers.
Pippin’s titular painting, “Birmingham Meetinghouse III” gives us the image of a Quaker meeting-house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The landmark building holds historical significance as the location for the battle of Brandywine during the Revolutionary War. Although George Washington and his soldiers lost the battle, the war was eventually won, and the building can still be seen as a symbol of freedom.
“Even though it’s a quaint landscape view of an old American building, Pippin had to be and was certainly aware of its historic legacy,” says Amanda C. Burdan, associate curator at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford. Pippin’s keen awareness of the building’s importance in America’s foundation shows that he was in touch with and strongly believed in the notion of liberty that he himself and previous generations had fought to put in place. Birmingham Meetinghouse still stands strong today—and continues to be a place of worship that allows for community to thrive.
Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses’s “Bringing in the Maple Sugar” is an excellent example of a piece that captures the importance of community in American values—giving us a picture of a group that is deeply rooted in its traditions. Multiple generations are seen both working and playing together while sap is collected from trees in order to produce maple syrup. The members of the community depend on each other just as much as they depend on their natural surroundings for sustenance and growth. We see the bloodline that runs through every family tree.
Moses’s work is not only important in her ability to express American ideals of togetherness, but she herself bolsters the notion of unity owing to the fact that she was a female who, like many other outsider artists at the time, were beginning to gain recognition for their creativity. Her work was displayed to the public for the first time in 1940 at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City (she was eighty years of age). Up until 1920, women did not have the right to vote, and twenty years down the line, Moses began to receive due recognition as a powerful force in the art world and as an American.
These artists “paved the way for future generations of self-taught artists. They also redefined what it meant to be quintessentially American, increasing the opportunity for working class immigrants, people of color, and women to bear that honor,” says Katherine Jentleson, curator of the High Museum’s Folk Art department in Atlanta, which is currently showcasing the work of these artists in an exhibition titled Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950—an exhibit organized by the Brandywine River Museum in collaboration with the High.
Examples abound of the diverse and creative voices that both depict and define America. With the inclusion of these artists into the major canon, they are simultaneously recognized as an integral part of the history of America and where it stands now. These are all artists who persevered through turmoil due to race or gender. Their hard-fought battle for recognition and due rights is a testament to the American mentality of diversity and liberty. No matter how divided America appears today, we can look back at history through the eyes of artists who reveal to us the communal road that has been paved for all to walk.