In an untitled painting by Clementine Hunter (1886-1988), two African American women in white aprons and bright-colored dresses wash clothes in large tubs squeezed between two robust green trees against a bright blue and pink sky. Hunter started working on a plantation at a young age and never learned to read or write. In the 1940s, finding some brushes and paint, she began to depict the reality around her, including the bygone plantation life of the early 20th century.
Beginning September 16, a new exhibition at the Hunter Museum will feature Clementine Hunter’s painting, together with works by nine other folk artists of the American South.
The Hunter’s chief curator Nandini Makrandi discusses the main ideas behind the exhibition “More Than Folk: Celebrating Self-Taught Artists:”
What is the definition of a folk or self-taught artist?
A folk or self-taught (the words are used interchangeably) artist is someone who hasn’t gone to school for art and, therefore, is not professionally trained. Generally speaking, self-taught artists tend to create art about their personal experiences - their subject matter is usually emotionally driven and could express what they’ve dealt with in their work, home, or spiritual life. For example, Bessie Harvey, the seventh of 13 children and having no more than a third grade education, is one of the artists featured in the show. A deeply religious person, Harvey’s faith was a source for her work of creating dolls out of different found materials. As a relief from the rigors of parenting 11 children, she would take tree roots and branches and bring out the images that she saw in them. She often “meditated” during the creative process and claimed she communed with God through her art.
Why is the exhibition titled “More Than Folk: Celebrating Self-Taught Artists?”
Folk art, originally labeled as “primitive” or “naïve” wasn’t collected by major collectors and museums until the late 20th century. The exhibition at the Hunter features art from the mid to late 20th century created by primarily self-taught artists, most of whom are of African American descent, who came to art late in life, having another primary way of making a living.
With this exhibition, the Hunter will demonstrate how works by folk artists have similar qualities to those we admire in artists who had formal training. For example, self-taught artists, like formally trained artists, make choices of composition and color, but perhaps they do so more intuitively than artists who are professionally trained. This exhibition celebrates the passion, intuition and creativity that drove these self-taught artists to paint and sculpt.
How does the show resonate with the museum collection and other exhibitions?
In addition to the “More Than Folk” exhibition, the Hunter will be hosting “Southbound,” a large photography exhibition, on dates overlapping the folk” art show. Like the “More Than Folk exhibit, the “Southbound” exhibition will explore the American South, but from different perspectives.
And interestingly, early American paintings are also sometimes called “naïve.” When the country was established, there were no schools for art, which is why the first American artists didn’t always learn how to accurately depict a proportion or shade. Hunter Museum visitors can see the development of early American artists in the main galleries, as well as in the upcoming exhibitions.