Coming Home to Outsider Religious Art

Paul Harvey

Preparing my Lamar Lectures has brought me back to a little project I was involved with a few years ago, mainly just to write a short introduction for one chapter in Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South. I've been going through this work again looking for images to go along with one of the lectures, "Jesus of the South." Of course there are many; one of my favorites, "There is Only One King," is to the right. These artists are eccentrics and visionaries; one of them, Anderson Johnson (1907-1998), now has his own gallery of work he did while running a Faith Mission Church in Newport News, Virginia, over several decades.

Some well-known names, especially Howard Finster, are in this work. Many others you will not have heard of. The book is a wonderful catalog of the exhibition that traveled the country a few years back, reviewed here in the New York Times when it appeared at the Museum of Biblical Art (the article comes with a very nice slide show of some of the works, too).

Scholars such as Colleen McDannell, among others, have led the way in showing how religious historians may incorporate the visual into their work. I'm but a novice at this, but plan to try my hand a bit at it in these lectures. We'll see how it goes. David Morgan's Protestants and Pictures is a classic in analyzing how an allegedly "pure" church free of Romish superstititions of images and icons in fact created an entire world of their own imagery. And, just as anyone can read the Bible, the (mostly) Protestants in this collection freely interpreted biblical passages through their wildly diverse and often apocalyptic imagery. Moreover, the black artists exhibited here weren't waiting around for the advent of "black theology" to experiment with images of Jesuses of color. Black crucified Christs appear frequently in the exhibition and range through the course of the twentieth century.

Here's a description of Coming Home.

In the works of many famous self-taught artists, such as Howard Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan, Biblical themes and imagery abound. How has the Bible inspired these southern creators?

Examining 125 works of art by seventy contemporary folk artists, Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South accompanies a traveling exhibition organized by the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. The exhibition features painters and sculptors of wide acclaim, including Finster, Sister Morgan, William Edmondson, Clementine Hunter, Joe Minter, Elijah Pierce, Robert Roberg, William Thomas Thompson, and Myrtice West.

In the South, Evangelical Christianity is predominant. Essays in this catalog explore this particular religious influence on the work of southern self-taught artists. The artwork is considered within the context of contemporary American art and history, literature, and music.

Also included are brief essays on thirty-two of the artists along with biographical sketches of each, identifying denominational ties and providing relevant religious information.

Coming Home! offers new ways of understanding the rich meaning, theology, and history of this art and its stylistic approaches and various purposes. Essayists also forward a fresh appreciation of the cultural influence of Evangelical Christianity. They include Carol Crown, Erika Lee Doss, Hal Fulmer, Norman Girardot, Paul Harvey, Babatunde Lawal, Leslie Luebbers, Cheryl Rivers, and Charles Reagan Wilson.


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