Everyone has an interesting life story, so I believe. But most of those belonging to self-taught artists, sometimes also called folk artists, always seem especially compelling. Reading their brief biographies on wall labels at "From the Heart: Folk Art on Paper" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is a moving experience.
That said, art must stand on its own. The art in this show generally does, not always based on formal technique but on conceptual merits. Their difficult lives inform their art, distilled through a prism of imagination that's based on experience and yet transcends it.
Among the most important artists on view are Bill Traylor, whose work is now in major museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum's permanent collection, and Thornton Dial, who became a national presence after being selected to participate on the 2000 Whitney Biennial. His work is also in major museum collections.
Traylor's Owl, a drawing on cardboard, has the same powerful resonance as Francisco Goya's dog from his Black Paintings of the early 19th century. Notice how the bird seems to perch on a branch that isn't a continuous line. Its claws float on thin air. Traylor (1854-1949) was an illiterate former slave from Alabama who didn't begin drawing until he was in his 80s, but he evolved quickly, creating 1,500 drawings in about three years.
Dial (1928-2016) was also the product of poverty in the rural South. Probably because he was several generations behind Traylor, and definitely because he had such an inquisitive mind, Dial's work usually addresses racial and political issues, often using animals as stylized symbols. The drawings in this show don't reflect that impulse overtly; they're lyrical portraits that are equal to those by Willem de Kooning.
Louisiana Bendolph (1960-) is a Gee's Bend quilter. The quilts are from that Alabama community, which was all but isolated until the 1960s. Most of the sharecroppers living there had miserable housing conditions, usually without heat, running water or electricity. The women made quilts from scraps of material to keep their children warm.
William Arnett, a scholar and collector, began collecting works by black artists in the American South and brought many of them, including the Gee's Bend quilters and Dial, to international prominence in the early 2000s. The quilts were admired for their improvisational geometry and artful use of color. The exposure has clearly brought more sophistication to the community; Bendolph's etching is a riff on her quilts, for which she generally uses the Housetop pattern. In Doorway to a Dream (2013), the blocks on the quilt become red, yellow, brown and black bars forming a spare grid on a cream background.
Born in Plant City to migrant farm workers, Woodrow Wilson Long (1942-2009) was a house painter; he seems to have been successful at it, traveling far and wide even though he was illiterate.
As he grew older, he said, "I wanted to write my memories down ... but I can't write. I thought, why don't I paint."
Girl on a Tricycle (1985) is a boldly conceived work. The background is composed of three angled slashes of gray, pink and green. In the foreground is a young white girl with blond pigtails. We see her from an unusual perspective, looking up as she pedals by. In the basket attached to the tricycle is a tiny black girl. The overall impression conveys sunniness, but the fact that we're looking up as if on the ground beneath her, along with the diminution of the black girl, suggests inequality.
There are multiple viewpoints in this show. One of the most explicit expressions of the black experience in the Deep South is a pencil drawing on paper by M.C. Jones (1917-2003), a cotton picker. The untitled work from around 1987 portrays Klansmen setting torches to a rural house. Purvis Young (1943-2010), on the other hand, paints the gritty urban neighborhood of his hometown, Miami. Young, unlike most of the other artists here, studied books of art while in prison, though he had no formal training.
Katherine Pill, curator of contemporary art at the museum, has teased out the multiple ways in which the artists approach their work, once again proving the point that stuffing them into one broad category, in this case folk art, oversimplifies even as it helps explain.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.