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magazine home > archives > summer 2004 > features

A new exhibit at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis explores evangelism and the South through the eyes of self-taught artists.

Coming Home!
by Matt Timberlake

 
Linda Anderson: Adam Naming the Animals
 
Adam Naming the Animals
Linda Anderson

William Edmondson was sleeping softly on a warm Nashville night several years back when he was awakened by a voice booming down on him from the head of his bed. It was God, Edmondson says, appearing in the dark bedroom in human form to offer divine instruction. He was told by the visitor that if he would make chisels and mallets, God would bestow upon him the talent of carving limestone, of chipping away at the lumpy rock to expose the holy shapes within. Edmondson made the tools, found the rock and for the next 15 years, the former hospital janitor did as he was commanded, covering his property with limestone preachers, doves and assorted citizens of God's Earth.

As unique as the pieces are, Edmondson's visit from God was not. Throughout history, artists have created works to satisfy divine beings, from Mesopotamian totems to Greco-Roman sculpture, from Buddhist sand paintings to Italian frescoes. A new exhibit at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis aims to explore this phenomenon as it exists in the evangelical South. "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South" runs through Nov. 13 and features 125 pieces created by 73 Southern painters and sculptors. The exhibit, which includes 46 pieces by African-American artists, will eventually travel to Florida State University's Museum of Fine Arts and the Gallery at the American Bible Society.

The collected pieces share elements of style and technique, but it is the Southern evangelical culture in which the artists live that binds them in this exhibition.

Chester Cornett: Crucifix

Crucifix
Chester Cornett

"When this art has been brought together in the past, the focus has been on the stories of the artists, their history," says Dr. Carol Crown, associate professor of art history and curator of the exhibit. "I wanted an exhibition that would show the influence of the evangelical culture of the South on these artists."

Many of these artists come from communities that are soaked in religion. After working hard during the day, the artists spend much of their evenings and weekends singing in a church choir, cooking for potluck dinners and attending worship services. Christianity is such a permanent part of their existence that it would be impossible for them to create art that ignores their beliefs.

"This art," says Crown, "is grounded in the experiences of the people making it."

It is common for evangelical Christians to have what they say are close relationships with God. Like Edmondson, many of the "Coming Home!" artists took up their hammers and brushes because of a divine mandate to spread God's word through art.

Sister Gertrude Morgan says she was 37 when she received her divine "orders."

"A voice spoke to me and said to go and preach, to tell it to the world," recalls this self-taught painter, who uses Biblical themes in her works.

Artist J.B. Murray, unable to read and write, considers his vibrant abstract paintings to be a kind of holy writing,
"an alternative to words."

 
Lorenzo Scott: Reunion in Heaven (of the 'House of Prayer Children')
 
Reunion in Heaven (of the 'House of Prayer Children')
Lorenzo Scott

And Rev. Howard Finster, perhaps the most famous of the artists in the exhibit, says he became a minister and a painter because of visions he began having early in life. At age 3, he had a vision of his recently deceased sister climbing a stair of clouds to heaven; years later as he was painting a bicycle he saw the image of a face in the paint on his fingertip. A disembodied voice then told Finster to create sacred art, so he began painting. He would later swap his brushes for magic markers and simplify his compositions to create art more rapidly, thus spreading his colorful sermons to more people.

Other artists whose work is featured in the exhibition include Clementine Hunter, Joe Minter, Elijah Pierce, Robert Roberg, Mary T. Smith, William Thompson and Myrtice West.

Crown says the exhibit provides new ways of understanding the rich meaning, theology and history of Southern art, as well as its stylistic approaches and various purposes.

"This is exciting for me because this is the first comprehensive study of the art viewed through the lens of the evangelical culture," says Crown.

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.amum.org or call 901/678-2224.

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