1. Visual Arts

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

Art collector Jim Sweeny talks to visitors from Eckerd College’s Academy of Senior Professionals at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. In the background are two works by artist Lonnie Holley. They are part of the “Straighten Up the World” exhibition. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Art collector Jim Sweeny talks to visitors from Eckerd College’s Academy of Senior Professionals at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. In the background are two works by artist Lonnie Holley. They are part of the “Straighten Up the World” exhibition. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jun. 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 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.


  1. Blown glass jewelry by artist Harold Cooney will be available during Zen Glass' holiday show and sale in St. Petersburg on Dec. 7. [Courtesy of Zen Glass]
    Zen Glass also holds its holiday show and party this weekend.
  2. Glenn Woods, 62, shapes a decorative bottle made with a blend of porcelain clays at Palm Harbor's Pottery Boys Clay Studios. Woods and his partner, Keith Herbrand, 56, have created dozens of pieces for the Tampa Bay Tour de Clay this weekend. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
    Plus, Dunedin Fine Art Center is having a pottery sale.
  3. Art by Mele's resin sculptures and home decor are available at the Florida CraftArt Holiday Boutique in St. Petersburg starting Nov. 30. [Courtesy of Florida CraftArt]
    Enjoy loads of local art as well as discounts and activities.
  4. Amber Parker sells her Loudmouth Lip Attire during the Tampa Indie Flea in 2018. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times (2018)]
    More than 250 local companies assemble for Shopapalooza in St. Pete, Indie Flea pops up at Black Crow Coffee, Oxford Exchange’s gift bazaar and a shop hop in Seminole Heights.
  5. The store at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times]
    Sunday is Museum Store Sunday, with discounts on everything from ornaments to local art to high-end jewelry to handbags.
  6. Garry Winogrand's "Laughing Woman with Ice Cream Cone",1968, on loan from the Kemper Museum in San Francisco. © The Estate of  Garry Winogrand. [Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco]
    “Controversial” is just one adjective applied to these black-and-white photographs at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
  7. The Holiday Open House at Syd Entel Galleries in Safety Harbor will feature Estella Fransbergen's glittering gold clay torso with a skirt of crystals on Nov. 23. [Courtesy of Syd Entel Galleries]
    Plus, a fire sale at the store inside USF CAM and a Trans Fashion Expo.
  8. Joan Miro's painting "Peinture" is on display in the "Midnight in Paris" exhibition at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. [Courtesy of the Centre Pompidou, Paris]
    Plus, ‘Icons in Transformation’ by an acclaimed international artist and an announcement from the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts.
  9. A mermaid attraction at the Shine mural festival finale is an example of what to expect at Fairgrounds, an immersive art attraction coming to The Factory St. Pete. [Courtesy of Liz Dimmitt]
    Two art compounds include hands-on ways to appreciate art, plus breweries that encourage visitors to make a day of it.
  10. "Ai Weiwei: Zodiac (2018) LEGO" will be on display at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota starting Nov. 16. [Courtesy of Jason Schmidt]
    Plus, Tampa Museum of Art presents “the Making of a Museum” and Karen Lamonte takes over the Imagine Museum.