FOLK :ART AND THE AMERICAN SOUTH
WILLIAM FERRIS

The American South has always stood as a world distinct from the rest of our nation. Long before the founding of our nation, Native American peoples well appreciated the region's special climate and geography. Its fertile soil and abundant wildlife sustained tribes such as the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez.

The distinctive designs on the potter and baskets made by artists in these tribes reflect the diverse cultures that occupied the South long before the arrival of European and African peoples. The art forms and dramatic burial mounds of Native Americans in the Mississippi River Valley suggest the profound, enduring relationship they felt toward their homeland.

From these first Native American settlers to the present, the American South has shaped her people in complex ways. The land has exerted a distinctive power over each generation, and as Faulkner reminds us, in the South the past is a living force that molds contemporary life. This past and the land itself are brooding presences that shape southern worlds in unspoken but firm ways. Within these worlds a reverence for both past and place offers a foundation for an art that is at once inspired and haunted by the region.

Black and white southerners trace their heritage to Africa and Europe respectively, and their old world cultures have been transformed within the region over several centuries. African music provided the foundation for blues and jazz, while European ballads and dance tunes shaped country music. These traditions and the lives of those who perform and listen to them are rooted in southern worlds. Black bluesmen such as W. C. Handy celebrated small towns in the Mississippi Delta like Moorehead, "Where the Southern crosses the Dog" (the intersection of the Southern and Yazoo Delta railroads), just as white country music singer Hank Williams longed for a simpler farm life:

I'm gonner pack my troubles underneath my arm.
Going back to my. Momma's farm,
And lose these honk) tool, blues.

Hank Williams first learned to play his guitar from a black musician named Tee Tot, suggesting how black and white peoples ill the South share a common world in which historic me more and imagination are intertwined. While southern storms of civil War, Jim Crow segregation, and civil rights have raged on the surface of the region's culture, deep creative currents have evolved over time in a profound, purposeful manner.

During the twentieth century, southerners have produced written, oral, and visual art forms that are rich and distinctive. These arts reflect the diverse worlds of literary and folk traditions among white and black cultures, and together they define the cultural landscape of the region. They offer a unique window oil southern people within which southern faces and voices are captured with a living, immediate presence. If the past is ever present in the South, then art is its embodiment. Southern characters summoned from the past appear greater than life in the fiction of William Faulkner, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright, just as southern homes, landscapes, and faces are preserved on the canvases of folk artists like Howard Finster, Gertrude Morgan, and James Henry "Son" Thomas.

If we view southern culture as a holistic world within which all of the arts are connected, we can see how oral, written, and visual artistic traditions inform and enrich each other. Southern writers borrow folktales from storytellers to use in their fiction, and studio painters are inspired by the design and color of quilts and folk art in painting their canvasses.

While our region's writers and painters are internationally recognized for their work, our folk artists have only recently been discovered and seriously studied. Standing outside the academy, these artists create images that offer an important contrast with the classic portraiture and landscape often associated with the South. Folk images of everyday scenes, like parables, are familiar worlds that the artist shares with friends in their community. The southern folk artist draws us to a familiar message that we instinctively understand and return to for inspiration.

This catalogue of southern folk art is particularly exciting because it represents the work of black and white artists from all parts of the American South. As we look at their images, we might well ask, "Why the South?" And what makes the region such a rich climate for creativity? How can we explain the apparent contradiction of a people whose feet are firmly planted on red clay soil while their art soars to imaginative heights? In a region where Protestants scorn graven images, we discover colorful, surreal religious worlds painted and sculpted in both black and white churches. Within this old and deep mix of African and European cultures overlaying the Native American, we find patterns that shape the southern folk imagination. Southerners create tales, music, and art that bridge past and present worlds and freeze time into images that evoke memory.

As this catalogue suggests, folk artists deserve the same careful study we have given our great southern writers and painters. Their art stands in dramatic contrast to literary and classical visual arts associated with the region. The latter are products of an educated black and white elite whose work graces the bookshelves and walls of the region's "big houses." Folk art, on the other hand, is associated with the smaller dogtrot and shotgun homes where the South's poor white and black families live. These families exist on the margin of southern society, and folk art reflects their struggle to survive.

This catalogue gathers images of religious scenes and rural worlds from throughout the South that describe a shared culture. White and black feces appear in the repertoire of artists of both races, as the artist leads the viewer beyond a rigid separation of white and black worlds. This theme of a shared culture bonds black and white folk artists and is significant in their work.

Race is the oldest and most complex southern title. It hearkens back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel wrestling, back to Yuck and Jim floating down the Mississippi River on their raft in 'MarkTwain's Adventures of Huckelberry Finn. The struggle of white and black peoples to live together in the South is the central theme of the region's history, and no aspect of the region's life, be it food, language. religion, or politics, can be understood apart from race.

Blacks were first brought to the South as slaves and were the foundation of the region's agricultural economy. Colonial figures like Thomas Jefferson measured their wealth by the acres of land and number of slaves they owned. Jefferson was part of a southern planter elite who based their empire on two commodities-slavery and cotton.

It is said that a people who resist change most strongly will be changed most dramatically, and such change is a familiar part of the South's history. The resistance of southern whites to equality of their black brothers and sisters is a theme that begins in slavery and continues today. Its major chapters are chronicled in slavery and the Civil War, a war followed by a reconstruction period that raised hopes that blacks might participate in the politics and economic development of the region. fit the 1890s Jim Crow segregation signaled the return of white supremacy as public facilities such as drinking fountains, lunch counters, and schools were divided by race. As whites used violence and lynching to terrorize blacks, they firmly reestablished their control of the South.

During the first half of the twentieth century, blacks fled southern Jim Crow worlds through the military and enlisted during World War I and World War 11. These wars, even more than the Civil War, transformed southern life. They laid the seeds of the civil rights movement and set the stage for the charismatic leadership of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who mobilized black churches as the foundation of his civil rights effort. King inspired thousands in a movement that liberated both black and white southerners through the destruction of the old institutions of segregation.

The result of their courageous struggle is seen when we consider how a region known for its segregation and resistance to change has been transformed into a multiracial culture. Mississippi, a state torn by racial strife in the 1960s, has more black elected officials than any other state in the union. Mike Espy, the first black congressman elected in Mississippi since reconstruction, now serves as our nation's first black Secretary of .Agriculture. His appointment by President Bill Clinton signals the distance black and white southerners have traveled in their race relations. Their journey is marked by both a conflict and an intimacy that is unique to the re­region. White and black families in southern communities have lived and known each other for generations. Their shared history is revealed ever so clearly in the work of southern black and white artists and writers who treat their common worlds with familiarity and compassion. Southern churches, schools, and homes provide a familiar setting for a history that now spans more than two centuries. This his­tory both divides and binds its people and marks them with conflicting feelings of love and hatred for their world. Southern literature distills and restates this world for each generation through the ever­familiar sound of black and white southern voices.

Paralleling southern literature is the world of southern folk art, whose images capture black and white worlds with equal intimacy. As we view these images, we should imagine sounds of blues, country music, and gospel, for folk art and folk music are kindred spirits in the South. They emerge from a common world as they present themes such as love and religion. Sultan Rogers's Male and Female Figure (cat. no. 197), a sensuous image of the two sexes, is reminiscent of the blues, while Sister Gertrude Morgan's Self-portrait with Jesus (cat. no. 176) strikes a familiar theme in gospel music. Folk art is a visual counterpart of the lyrics and rhythms of southern folk music. James Henry "Son" Thomas's Man in Coffin (cat. no. 237) is a grim visual re­minder of lyrics by Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, who sang:

Gee but the graveyard is a lonesome place
They put you on Your back, throw that mud down
in your face.

Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson struck a similar chord with his request that his friends "see that my grave is kept clean." A clean grave, a song, and a work of art that adorns a wall are all forms of immortality.

Folk art mediates between the two worlds of life and afterlife. While Bill Traylor presents a stark image of farm life in his Man with Mule Plowing (pl. 39), Gertrude Morgan explores the afterlife with her New Jerusalem City (cat. no. 174). Morgan merges these two worlds in Way in the Middle of the Air (pl. 18) just as southern folk preachers some­times urge their congregations to "call up Jesus on the phone." Religion serves as a natural bridge between this world and the afterlife, and folk artists move us comfortably between the two.

Southern religion grew from an evangelical movement known as the Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth century, when the region was the nation's western frontier and was known as the "Old Southwest." Itinerant ministers preaching at camp meetings converted thousands of white and black southerners at outdoor services. Communities then constructed "brush arbor" churches using tree limbs to construct primitive shelters for worship. Many rural southern churches stand on the same sites where these original shelters were built.

While white and black congregations worship the same god, their approach to scripture has taken predictably different courses. White congregations draw heavily from the New Testament and stress personal salvation in their sermons. Black believers, on the other hand, are more comfortable with the Old Testament and identify with the Children of Israel in their common struggle for equality. The messages of Martin Luther King and Billy Graham are clear examples of the different paths, black and white believers have followed in the South.

Southern religion is the deepest and most en­during force in the lives of the region's folk artists. Virtually every child in the South has attended church services and heard sermons filled with biblical images. Both Old and New Testaments are familiar to folk artists, and we find biblical scenes captured in Gertrude MMorgan'sBook of Revelation (pis. 91, 92) and Self-portrait with Jesus. The crucifixion of Christ is a powerful New Testament image in southern folk art, and three striking examples are Edgar Tolson's Crucifixion (pl. 95), Jesse Aaron's Crucifixion (pl. 93), and George Williams's Crucifixion (pl. 94). Each of these images is starkly haunting, and together they focus on the crucifixion of Christ as a central image in southern Protestant belief. The body of Christ hanging from the cross, at times with two thieves beside him, suggests that death can be both frightening and attractive.

From its inception, southern religion has been a frontier experience carried by itinerant ministers to small rural communities within the region. The frontier experience and its strongly evangelical religion are still alive in the American South, and folk artists capture both past and present religious worlds through their images.

Southerners have always felt a special reverence toward the written word. In a region where both mule traders and preachers sway their audiences with biblical texts, southern schools developed an emphasis on the fundamental "three r's"­reading, writing, arid arithmetic. It is not surprising to find that southerners Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks stressed a close reading of the text as the focus of their literary criticism. Known as the New Critics, they adapted a familiar southern emphasis on the text in their study of poetry, fiction, and drama.

Brooks and barren's emphasis on text was influenced by a love of classicism that has long been associated with southern education, where the study of Latin and Greek was a familiar requirement. Cleanth Brooks once remarked that in the South more people could read Latin and Greek, and fewer could read at all, than in any other region. Brooks aptly pointed to the old, enduring division between the South's educated black and white elite and her often­illiterate working-class population. Many of the latter group of southerners, who appear throughout the pages of the region's great literature, painfully signed their names by making a cross with a scrawled X.

Within their working-class world, southern folk art makes its home. Plagued by illiteracy, folk artists viewed the printed word with special reverence, as the blind might view eyesight. These artists often display text as art and set it within a religious world. Many rural churches display handwritten signs that feature biblical scripture and religious messages. These stark texts, which often appear at a church entrance and on interior walls, have artistic as well as religious significance. A literal transcription of one such sign (fig. 1), at the entrance of the Church of God in Christ in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the 1960s, reads:

Dear People leave of all your sin and repent. let us turn to Jesus Christ before it is two late. And let us cleave to God and to his way. Jesus is the way. Let us follow him. Let us have the love of God in us to all people Brother ministers let us come to gather and pray and let Jesus have his way. Two menny people are gone a stray. Let us call the old and young out of their sin. Matt. 1.21 St. John 8.34.17.1. 3 Sun all are wel Wed night and Friday night

This sign is similar to the style of Howard Finster, who frequently uses handwriting in his art and draws our eve both to the literal message of his script and to its artistic design. Script frequently shares the canvas with pictorial illustrations in paintings such as The Discovery of Finster (pl. 14). Mary T. Smith also juxtaposes text and image in The Lord's Head of the World(pl. 99). And in his St. Helena's First Black Midwife (pl. 48), Sam Doyle paints a seated female figure with the title of his piece inscribed boldly beside her.

Benjamin F. Perkins uses religious text on a painted gourd that bears his inscription, "This is the Godhead of all the family of God in heaven and earth" (cat. no. 187). Gourds traditionally hang on poles as birdhouses, and w e can imagine the gourd with its religious inscription nudged by breezes as it hangs from a pole profiled against the sky. The image lifts the eye of our imagination upward and offers a fascinating connection between art and religion that is literally rooted in place.

Folk artists like Perkins and Finster use text as a talisman to conjure and evoke the viewer's emotions. They animate their text with primary colors and bold lettering, and at times this text shares the canvas with visual images. Their work is clearly influenced by hand-painted signs found beside roads and on buildings throughout the South. These signs have important aesthetic qualities, and their use of color and design informs our understanding of folk art. As an evocative element of the regions landscape, they should be viewed as part of a continuum of hand-painted texts that range from signs posted along roadsides and on churches and storefronts to folk art hanging on walls inside homes.

Deeply rooted in their local community, folk artists transform their worlds into colorful, highly imaginative forms. Homes, landscapes, animals, and people inspire an art that has both real and dreamlike qualities. To look at influences such as family, religion, and community is to see only part of the force that shapes this art. These literal worlds are transformed into images that one artist described as "something never before seen." Their art presents the viewer with imaginative worlds, and the connection of each work to the literal subject described, be it religion, farm life, or a portrait, is oblique. It both is and is not about the captioned title. We come closer to understanding each image if we move beyond its title and embrace its churning color and dizzying forms. Through the image we can approach the concealed imaginative world of the artist, a sea that is largely uncharted.

When we speak with artists about their inspiration, they often describe dreams as the primary source for their work. They often awaken in the middle of the night, rise from their beds, and begin to draw. Possessed by an image, they release its spirit onto plywood, cardboard, and Masonite Surfaces. Rarely does the artist have the luxury of working with canvas. As the painting is executed, the artist exorcises himself or herself of the dream.

The folk artist develops a comfortable relationship with the unconscious and moves freely between dream and waking reality. Their art is, a filter, a lens through which we view interior worlds that are deeply personal. Through this lens we look into a creative womb of southern folk culture. We tap nerves that run deep into a people who, denied education, wealth. and social status, shape a profound and tender message about their world. Working in mobile homes and cabins along southern roads, the' shape their images without thought of fame or even the idea that they might be "art," a word rarely used by artists. Their work is organic to their lives. Like the birthing of children or the changing of seasons, the artist is bound to southern culture and produces his or her work as an artistic duty.

Whether or not folklorists and art historians discover these artists and exhibit their work, the work tradition will continue. Shaped by the regions culture and its roots in Native American. African. and European traditions, this art is redefined by each new generation of artists. Like the South's great writers, folk artists draw from an imaginative well that is unquenched. Their art will always continue to flow, and. as we view it, we discover a new world and are transformed by it.