Colorful, wonderful and meaningful: Self-taught art at the Museum of Fine Arts

“Straighten Up the World,” drawn from the donation of self-taught art from Jim and Martha Sweeny, adds more diversity to the St. Petersburg museum’s permanent collection.
Published June 27
Updated June 28

ST. PETERSBURG — I brightened up upon entering “Straighten Up the World: Self-Taught Art From the Collection,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. The vivid colors, carefree gesture and innovative use of materials feel jubilant in the intimate second-floor gallery.

But there is so much more to this exhibition.

As museums across the country make an effort to diversify their collections, the Museum of Fine Arts has a leg up due in part to Jim and Martha Sweeny. “Straighten Up the World” is drawn from their donations of art by women and people of color. The museum’s 2015 exhibition, “Marks Made: Prints by American Female Artists From the 1960s to the Present,” was almost entirely composed of their donations.

Martha died in March, so the exhibition is in her memory. Curator of contemporary art Katherine Pill selected the pieces. Many of them are promised gifts and have never been shown at the museum before. A few still belong to Jim Sweeny.

The Sweenys were early collectors of 20th century self-taught artists, also called folk artists or outsider artists. They began buying these works in 1983 in Atlanta from Judith Alexander, who started the city’s first folk art gallery. Over the years, they collected many of the movement’s most prominent artists and were heavily involved in the folk art community.

This exhibit focuses on artists from the American South. While many of the artists in the exhibition are African-American, a few are white.

For as joyous as their art looks, many of the artists came to start creating after living through racism, poverty and other hardships. They used whatever materials they could find to create art environments around their homes, full of assemblages and words painted on signs and doors and things hanging from trees. “Yard shows” were prevalent in the 1980s and ‘90s, but many were bulldozed as developers came through, destroying the art and displacing the artists.

In the 1980s, an art dealer named Bill Arnett made road trips to find all these “yard shows” and collected art. He started the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which was dedicated to promoting African-American artists from the South and is still active today. Many of those artists are found in this exhibit and are beginning to appear in the collections of prominent museums, including San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum. Souls Grown Deep made a substantial donation of work there in 2017.

Lonnie Holley is represented by Souls Grown Deep, and four of his pieces appear in “Straighten Up the World.” He lived through a brutal upbringing and began making art after his niece and nephew died in a fire. He made their gravestones and kept creating assemblages from whatever was around. With Touching the Ancestors, a cross is wrapped with bits of ribbon and wire, topped with a rusted gear. He has fashioned a head and hand from wire, which make an interesting reflection on the wall.

Holley pays homage to his Cherokee roots in an untitled painting that depicts a blue figure wearing a headdress, but whose eye bears a resemblance to the Egyptian Eye of Horus. Two childlike figures are placed in front of a tepee, next to a tree with swirling branches. There is so much movement in the brushstrokes of the painting that it practically vibrates. Holley now makes experimental music and performs around the world.

If you were alive in the 1980s, you may have seen Howard Finster’s work. He was a Southern Baptist minister who, frustrated by his congregation’s lack of interest in his sermons, turned to art to spread the word. His environment Paradise Garden appears in R.E.M.’s 1983 video for Radio Free Europe, as does Finster himself. He also drew the cover for the Talking Heads’ 1985 album Little Creatures, which was selected as album cover of the year by Rolling Stone. Two of his angels, painted on wood cutouts, are in the exhibition. His work is full of tiny, painted, joyous people, interlaced with psalms. He brings clouds and hills to life by giving them eyes.

Tallahassee artist Mary Proctor also found her way to art after a family tragedy and, like Finster, heard a spiritual calling to paint. The healing she found is exemplified in her exuberant, untitled sculpture made of cascading paintbrushes. The brushes become the dress for a figure at the top, presumably a self-portrait, arms lifted in joy and the words “Wee I Found My Grove Thing When I Pick Up A Paint Brush.”

Clementine Hunter also drew from spirituality in her colorful scenes of her daily life. She spent most of her life on the Melrose Plantation in Louisiana. When the plantation was converted to a retreat for artists and writers, the discarded paints and brushes inspired her to create. In 1955, she exhibited at Northwest Louisiana University. Because of segregation, she could only go in when the galleries were closed to the public. Her lovely piece Nativity depicts the biblical scene with black characters, angels, the wise men, Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

Purvis Young lived in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, another thriving African-American community ruined when a highway was built through it. Young took inspiration from the poverty-stricken and crime-ridden neighborhood, painting what he saw. In Hangin’ in the City, three guys take up the foreground, observing the chaos around them. A car is on fire.

In fact, the title of the exhibition is part of a quote from Purvis explaining his work.

“I paint them all kinds of ways, some people protesting, some happy, some white, some black, green or purple. People that think like me. People that are trying to straighten up the world.”

Contact Maggie Duffy at mduffy@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8572. Follow @maggiedalexis.

If you go

“Straighten Up the World”

The exhibit remains on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg through Oct. 27. $20, $15 seniors, students, military and Florida educators, $10 children 7-17, free for 6 and younger and members, $10 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays) and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. 255 Beach Drive NE. (727) 896-2667. mfastpete.org.

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