Felipe Benito Archuleta Born Santa Cruz, New Mexico, 1910; died Tesuque, New Mexico, 1991
Felipe Benito Archuleta grew up poor. He left school at an early age to work as a field hand and later as a stonemason, cook, and for many years a carpenter. In 1964, during a period of financial difficulty, the fifty-four-year-old Archuleta received a vision from God that he should make wood carvings. The animals he began to carve were so distinctive and compelling that Archuleta quickly gained considerable success and reputation. During the 1970s his works were shown at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, and soon collectors were enthusiastically acquiring them. The artist’s son and grandson often assisted in the work, and thus Felipe established a lively animal-carving tradition in his locale.
Eddie Arning Born Germania, Texas, 1898; died McGregor, Texas, 1993
Eddie Arning was born into a German immigrant family in Texas. He attended school until he was twelve and then worked on his family’s farm until the age of thirty, when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He spent most of his remaining days in mental hospitals and nursing homes. When he was sixty-six years old, an occupational therapist encouraged him to draw, and for years he drew during much of the day. He found inspiration from memories, farm animals and machinery, and eventually illustrations in popular magazines. In 1973, after he was forced to leave his nursing home and live with his sister, he stopped making art.
A professor at the University of Texas began collecting Arning’s work in the 1960s. In 1970 the artist’s drawings were included in a show at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, and in 1985 the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, held a one-man exhibition of his work.
Emery Blagdon Born Callaway, Nebraska, 1907; died Callaway, 1986
Emery Blagdon was raised on a farm in Nebraska. After brief travel in the western United States he returned to the farm in the mid-1930s to help his parents, as first his mother (in 1936) and then his father (1951) succumbed to cancer. When Blagdon inherited his uncle’s adjacent farm in 1955 he began constructing an amazing “machine” for healing the sick. This consisted of hundreds of sculptures, like those in the Bonovitz collection, housed densely in one of the farm’s sheds and accompanied by paintings, hanging jars, and bundles of minerals, the whole apparatus lit with strings of holiday lights. All of these elements were intended to channel the electromagnetic energy of the earth, so that anyone who entered the shed could benefit from the machine’s healing powers.
After the artist’s death in 1986, two young men, one of whom Blagdon knew, bought the entire healing machine. Today, most of the pieces are owned by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
David Butler Born Good Hope, Louisiana, 1898; died Moran City, Louisiana, 1997
David Butler began making art after a series of life-changing events. His various manual labor jobs—in sawmills and road construction—ended in 1962 with a work-related injury, and his wife died in 1968. In the early 1970s, when Butler was in his mid-seventies, he began adorning his yard in Patterson, Louisiana, with colorful, cut-metal painted sculptures, mostly of fanciful subjects such as whirligigs and critters, and with decorated objects like birdfeeders, mailboxes, and bicycles. Butler also made cut-metal window screens for the outside of his house, both to control the light inside and as “spirit shields” against evil forces.
Butler’s work was included in the important 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C . The works in his fanciful yard environment were eventually dispersed into galleries, museums, and private collections.
Miles B. Carpenter Born Brownstone, Pennsylvania, 1889; died Waverly, Virginia, 1985
Miles Carpenter grew up working at his father’s farm and sawmill in Waverly, Virginia, and had little formal schooling. By 1912 he had purchased his own lumber mill, and during a lull in business in the early 1940s he began to whittle small animals and other objects. He closed the mill in 1955 but did not return seriously to carving until after his wife died in 1966 and he needed a new focus in his life. At that time he was in his late seventies.
He turned out to have a new career ahead as a folk carver. Collectors and dealers noticed his work quite early on: he made his first sale to well-known folk art collector Michael Hall in 1967 or 1968 and in the early 1970s one of his carvings was shown at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection in Williamsburg, Virginia.
James Castle Born Garden Valley, Idaho, 1899; died Boise, Idaho, 1977
James Castle worked at his art from the time he was a small child until the last day of his life. He was born completely deaf, and despite five years at the Idaho State School for the Deaf and the Blind, he did not acquire the tools of language such as lip-reading, finger spelling, or writing, though he may have learned other things more to his liking, in particular the allure of words and the making of books.
Without his handicap, he would have had to join his brothers and sisters in working the small subsistence farms on which his family lived. Instead he was free to devote all his time to art. Castle created his art from the detritus of everyday life; things like discarded paper or cardboard, stovepipe soot mixed with spit and water, and string. Only when he was in his fifties was his work noticed regionally, and the first national attention came twenty years after his death.
Bruno Del Favero Born Princeton, Michigan, 1910; died Greenwich, Connecticut, 1995
Bruno Del Favero moved from Michigan to northern Italy with his parents at age five, returning in 1928 and settling in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he married and remained for the rest of his days. He made his living as a mason, chauffeur, and landscape gardener. It is not known exactly when or why he began to paint his delicate and mysterious landscapes, but he was exhibiting in local art shows by the early 1970s and took himself seriously enough as an artist to join the Greenwich Art Society. He maintained a studio in the basement of his home, but never shared his art with his wife and five children. After the artist’s death his family introduced his work to New York dealers Shari Cavin and Randall Morris in the late 1990s. Del Favero’s first one-man show outside Greenwich was held at the Cavin-Morris Gallery in 1998.
Sam Doyle St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1906; died Beaufort, South Carolina, 1985
Sam Doyle came from a Gullah community on, St. Helena Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina. During his youth, Doyle attended the historic Penn School on the island, where his artistic inclinations were encouraged. As a young adult he lived off the island for a number of years and held jobs as a porter and laundry worker, returning in 1943.
In his early sixties, Doyle began to focus more intently on making art. He wanted to represent figures of importance to the African American people and to record St. Helena individuals who were significant to the island’s character and history. Doyle’s gallery of personalities, painted with loose, expressionistic brushwork on found materials (often roofing or siding sheet metal), filled his yard. His reputation was established when he was included in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 1982 show Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 in Washington, D.C.
William Edmondson Born Davidson County, Tennessee, 1874; died Nashville, 1951
Born to former slaves on a farm near Nashville, he moved with his family to the city around 1890, where he held jobs as a farmhand, stonemason, city sewer or railroad worker, and at the Nashville Woman’s Hospital. A devout Primitive Baptist, Edmondson had a vision sometime between 1930 and 1933 in which he said God appeared and talked to him about the gift of stonecutting he was going to confer. Using found chunks of limestone and simple chisels, Edmondson began to make tombstones in the shapes of angels, animals, local individuals, and famous Americans.
In 1937, the Museum of Modern Art held a small show of Edmondson’s sculptures – the first one-man exhibition at that institution of works by an African American. Edmondson was included in the landmark 1982 exhibition Black Folk Artists in America, 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., which brought him to the public’s attention.
Howard Finster Born Valley Head, Alabama, 1916; died Rome, Georgia, 2001
A revivalist preacher from the age of sixteen, Howard Finster worked at odd jobs in and around his home in Pennville, Georgia to supplement his income as a pastor. When he was sixty, God appeared to him through a paint smudge on his finger and told him to make “sacred art.” He began creating paintings and small constructions to spread his message of salvation. His colorful pieces are often filled with texts, mainly passages from the Bible and various religious exhortations. Finster engagingly combined the mundane with the divine: bulldozers and angels, a Ford motorcar and the Hebrew Bible, Uncle Sam and “visions of other worlds.”
Collectors soon began to acquire his work, and the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago held an exhibition in 1979. In the 1980s he designed album covers for musical groups such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads; appeared on the Johnny Carson show, and was included in the 1984 Venice Biennale.
Lee Godie Born Chicago, 1908; died Chicago, 1994
Dressed in colorful makeshift or cast-off clothes and wearing heavy makeup, Lee Godie was a well-known sight on the streets of downtown Chicago from the 1960s through 1980s, peddling her art at prominent locations—including on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago. She drew people, birds, and still lifes in ball-point pen and watercolor on pieces of canvas, some of which were discarded window shades. Many of her subjects sport fancy hats, stylish garments, and remarkable eyelashes.
Born into a family of eleven children, Godie married and had three children, two of whom died young. Later divorced, she had no contact with her surviving daughter until more than forty years later, when they were reunited. Perhaps more because of her colorful persona than her art, Godie was profiled during the early 1980s by the Chicago Reader, People, the Wall Street Journal, and Art in America.
Consuelo González Amezcua Born Piedras Negras, Mexico, 1903; died Del Rio, Texas, 1975
Consuelo (“Chelo”) González Amezcua was born in Mexico and moved to Del Rio, Texas with her family when she was ten. She attended school for six years, learned English, and wanted to study art, but her father’s death necessitated her finding a job. She lived in Del Rio for the rest of her life in the family home with her sister, never married, worked in the S. H. Kress 5 & 10 Cent Store, and continued to make art without formal training. This seemingly uneventful existence is belied by the richly imaginative and decorative world that González Amezcua created in her drawings. She worked in ballpoint pen, crayons, and chalk on pieces of paper or cardboard.
Her art was first shown outside Del Rio when Amy Freeman Lee, an artist and writer in San Antonio, Texas, curated a show of it at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio in 1968.
William Hawkins Born Union City, Kentucky, 1895; died Dayton, Ohio, 1990
William Hawkins grew up on a farm in Kentucky and attended school only through the third grade. He moved to Columbus, Ohio when he was twenty-one and held various jobs ranging from plumber to truck driver to brothel manager. He began making art in his thirties but was not recognized for it until 1981, when he was in his eighties.
Hawkins typical subject matter included Ohio landmarks and buildings, animals, and current events. His images are often adopted from magazines and other print media. He worked on found cardboard and plywood or Masonite panels, using semigloss enamel house paints. In 1981, a local artist suggested Hawkins enter one of his works in the amateur division of the 1982 Ohio State Fair exhibition, where it won first prize. From then until he suffered a stroke near the end of his life, Hawkins painted full time and is now recognized as one of the premier self-taught artists in this country.
S. L. Jones Born Indian Mills, West Virginia, 1901; Died Hinton, West Virginia, 1997
S. L. Jones was an Appalachian railroad man and woodcarver, and his subjects reflect the interests of people in his rural mountain region: hunting, music making, and religion, in particular. Born into a sharecropping family of thirteen, he left school sometime after the eighth grade to work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, rising to the rank of foreman before he retired in 1967. From childhood he hunted, trapped, whittled, and was an accomplished fiddler. Jones took up his old hobby of woodcarving when his first wife died not long after he left his job, starting with smaller figures—people and animals—but moving on to almost life-size ones. In 1972 well-known collector of folk and outsider art Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., began to buy his carvings. By the late 1980s Jones was known as one of the most important regional woodcarvers in the country.
Justin McCarthy Born Weatherly, Pennsylvania, 1892; died Tucson, Arizona, 1977
Justin McCarthy was born into a wealthy family near Allentown, Pennsylvania. The death of his father in the early 1900s left the family in financial ruin. McCarthy entered law school at the University of Pennsylvania but suffered a nervous breakdown and spent five years in the State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane in Rittersville, PA, where he began to draw.
After his release, McCarthy worked variously as a farmer, a warehouse employee, a chocolate mixer, and a steelworker, meanwhile creating drawings, watercolors, and paintings. His sources were everyday events and all sorts of popular imagery of the day, with an emphasis on athletes, movie stars, and other famous people. Around 1960 Pennsylvania dealer and collector Dorothy Strauser saw his work at a local art show in Stroudsburg and began collecting and selling it. McCarthy had his first solo exhibition at the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1965.
Sister Gertrude Morgan Born Lafayette, Alabama, 1900; died New Orleans, 1980
Sister Gertrude Morgan was a street preacher and gospel singer in the French Quarter of New Orleans from the 1940s through the 1970s, who established the Everlasting Gospel Mission in a small white-painted building in the Lower Ninth Ward. In the mid-1950s Morgan began to use visual images to support her spiritual messages. Though she had only completed the third grade, her works in ballpoint pen, paint, and opaque watercolor on various kinds of discarded materials are often filled with long biblical texts and other writings. She often mixed visionary religious subjects and images from modern-day life. In Sister Gertrude’s imagination, for example, the New Jerusalem was a multistoried apartment complex flanked by streaming hordes of angels.
In 1974, Sister Gertrude stopped making paintings, at God’s directive. After her death, her works were included in the watershed 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Elijah Pierce Born near Baldwyn, Mississippi, 1892; died Columbus, Ohio, 1984
Elijah Pierce was a barber and Baptist preacher in Columbus, Ohio, who made remarkable small bas-relief carvings of Bible scenes, animals, entertainers, famous African Americans, and other subjects, displaying them in his barbershop from the early 1930s. He worked with simple tools—a pocketknife, a chisel, a piece of broken glass, and sandpaper—painting his pieces in bright colors.
Pierce showed in local exhibitions, but his work did not provoke wider attention until 1968, when a graduate student in sculpture at Ohio State University saw his art and became a strong advocate. Pierce enjoyed a growing reputation from the 1970s on, with his pieces being shown at high-profile galleries and in museums. In 1982 his work was included in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition Black Folk Artists in America, 1930–1980, in Washington, D.C., and that same year he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Martín Ramírez Born Rincón de Velázquez, Mexico, 1895; died Auburn, California, 1963
Born in Mexico to a sharecropper family, Martín Ramírez emigrated to California in 1925 in search of temporary work, which he found with railroads and mines. In 1931 the police committed him to a mental hospital, and he spent the rest of his life in institutions in California, diagnosed with schizophrenia.
At some point Ramírez began to create drawings on found papers often pasting together smaller sheets to make large drawing surfaces. He used wax crayon, ink, paint, and graphite to create mysterious images of trains, tunnels, Madonnas, horsemen, and landscapes. In 1948 an art teacher and clinical psychologist discovered his work and arranged for a number of regional exhibitions. Twenty years later Chicago artist Jim Nutt encountered his work and, together with artist Gladys Nilsson (his wife), and Chicago gallerist Phyllis Kind, purchased nearly three hundred drawings. Ramirez’s work became an important influence on the Chicago art scene in the 1970s.
Ellis Ruley Born Norwich, Connecticut, 1882; died Norwich, 1959
Born into one of the very few African American families in Norwich, Connecticut, Ellis Ruley followed his father into construction work. A substantial financial settlement following an injury enabled Ruley to purchase a house in an all-white neighborhood. He also married a white woman. This mixed-race family suffered much local hatred. Both Ruley and his son-in-law were found dead near the family’s home – in events that were officially ruled as accidents. Most of the artist’s works were lost when the family house burnt down a few weeks after his death.
Ruley began painting at age fifty-seven working at a homemade easel in his back yard or at his bedroom window. He had a small exhibition in Norwich in 1952. Twenty-one years after his death, his work was included in a show entitledConnecticut Black Artists at the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, and in 1993 a retrospective was organized by the San Diego Museum of Art that traveled to several U.S. cities.
Jon Serl Born Olean, New York, 1894; died Lake Elsinore, California, 1993
Jon Serl was born in upstate New York into a large, impoverished family of traveling vaudevillians. He began dancing and singing at a young age, travelling with the family and rarely attending school. Eventually Serl moved to Hollywood, where he did voiceover work for the film industry. After World War II he settled in the village of San Juan Capistrano in southern California, and around 1949 or 1950, when he was in his mid fifties, he began to paint. He worked on repurposed board, found wooden panels, Masonite, or plywood, applying paint in streaky brushstrokes and often laying it directly from the tube onto the picture’s surface. In 1971 Serl moved to Lake Elsinore, northeast of San Juan Capistrano. The rubber-limbed people in his pictures are often engaged in theatrical or musical activities, no doubt a reflection of the vaudeville days of his youth.
Herbert Singleton Born New Orleans, 1945 or 1946; died New Orleans, 2007
Herbert Singleton grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in New Orleans called Algiers, in a small home with seven siblings. When he was seventeen he began work in construction, and he also carved and sold wooden canes. He got mixed up with a local drug dealer and eventually was incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In all, he served almost fourteen years in prison. On his release he returned to Algiers and started carving again, as well as helping to stage voodoo rituals. In the late 1980s Singleton began to make large-scale bas-reliefs, often adapting found wooden panels such as doors or cabinet fronts, to which he applied house enamel or automobile paint.
His scenes include slave life, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, drug abuse, gambling, and beatings, as well as voodoo ceremonies and occasions typical of New Orleans culture, such as jazz funerals.
Simon Sparrow Born West Africa, c. 1925; died Madison, Wisconsin, 2000
Simon Sparrow spent his first two years among the Yoruba in West Africa and the next decade on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. His travels as an adult are somewhat obscure, but he lived some years in Philadelphia and later in New York, working as a house painter, singer, and cook. Sometime after 1968 he moved with his wife and children to Madison, Wisconsin, and lived there for the rest of his life.
Sparrow began painting in the 1960s, but it was not until the mid-1980’s that he began to create the grand scale and complex assemblages for which he is best known. For Sparrow, faces and figures in his compositions depict spirits, essences of people who lived long ago and images that came to him from God. Sparrow showed his works in public spaces in Madison and preached to people about their spiritual messages, thus allowing his assemblages to reach the art world’s notice.
Bill Traylor Born near Benton, Alabama, c. 1853; died Montgomery, Alabama, 1949
Bill Traylor was born a slave on a plantation and remained on the land as a farmhand for most of his life, raising a large family. In his mid-seventies he moved to Montgomery, where eventually he was forced to live on the street. He began to make art quite suddenly, when he was in his mid-eighties, and only drew for a few years. The drawings he made between about 1939 and 1942—of animals, birds, people, household objects, and what he called “exciting events,” offer glimpses of long-gone African American lives in the rural Deep South.
Traylor’s work was noticed and saved by a young Alabama painter, who eventually brought it to the attention of the larger art world. The flattened, simplified, silhouetted images along with his innate genius for composition have made Traylor one of a handful of iconic self-taught artists of twentieth-century America.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein Born Marinette, Wisconsin, 1910; died Milwaukee, 1983
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a Milwaukee baker, created a remarkable body of works of art which he displayed entirely in his house, unseen by the rest of the world during his lifetime. His extant works—produced after he married his wife, Marie, in 1943—fall into three modes: boudoir-style photographs of Marie; colorful, apocalyptic oil paintings; and ceramic and chicken bone sculptures. His hand-built and highly imaginative ceramic vessels and crowns were made from local clay found at construction sites and fired in the oven in his home. Most unusual are his “bone artifacts constructions,” tiny, magical chicken- bone towers and thrones, mounted on wire armatures and touched with paints.
After the artist’s death, a friend brought his art work to the attention of the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. That museum has since acquired more than six hundred of the artist’s works.
George Widener Born Cincinnati, 1962
George Widener is a numerical savant who can mentally calculate long sequences of numbers and dates. In his works of art, he turns complex mathematical sequences into minutely rendered, patterned compositions. He is also fascinated by disasters, especially the sinking of the Titanic (1912) – a subject represented in his large drawing in the Bonovitz collection.
Widener joined the Air Force in 1980, and became an audio visual technician. Four years later he left the service and after travel in Europe and returned to the US. He spent the next few years in and out of mental health facilities and, at one point, in a homeless shelter. In 1994, at age thirty-two, he began attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned a liberal arts degree. He now lives in Waynesville, North Carolina, and one of his favorite pastimes is hiking the Appalachian Trail where he often works on his drawings.
Joseph Yoakum Born Missouri, 1890; died Chicago, 1972
Joseph Yoakum was of Cherokee and African American descent. He had little formal schooling, lived his younger years in Missouri and Kansas, and worked on the railroads and as a coal miner. During World War I he served briefly in the army, which took him to France, England, and Canada. He later settled in Chicago, spending a year in the mid-1940s in a veterans’ hospital as a psychiatric patient. Yoakum described an exciting and adventurous life in his youth, traveling to far-flung places with circuses, the military, and steamship crews, though these stories cannot be verified.
Yoakum probably began to draw in the 1960s. In 1967, a Chicago college teacher introduced his work to the city’s art establishment. Yoakum’s reputation grew quickly. Shortly before his death he was given a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Purvis Young Born Miami, 1943; died Miami, 2010
Purvis Young lived in Overtown, a once thriving, historically black neighborhood in Miami that was decimated by urban renewal and highway construction in the 1960s. He never attended high school and in his late teens was convicted of breaking and entering, spending three years in a Florida jail. There he began to read and draw. He was particularly inspired by reproductions of urban murals in cities like Chicago.
Upon his release Young began his own mural project at a spot in Overtown called Goodbread Alley, hanging dozens of his paintings edge to edge along a dilapidated stretch of the street. His paintings address issues of racism, poverty, suffering, communal redemption, and hope for salvation. In 1972, the Miami Museum of Modern Art gave Young his first exhibition. Subsequently the artist’s work became well known and widely collected throughout the United States.
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