Naming the Animals
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
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.
"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
"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
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."
in Heaven (of the 'House of Prayer Children')
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
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