Folk art encompasses several genres found in Mississippi: traditional crafts and decorations, including woodcarving, basketry, ceramics, and quilting; the art of common folks; self-taught, outsider, visionary, and vernacular art. The American art world’s attention was drawn to folk art when Berthe Kroll Goldsmith and Holger Cahill opened the American Folk Art Gallery in 1931 in New York City. Folk art forms exhibited there were promoted as ancestors of modern art. During a revival of interest in folk art in the 1970s, traditional ethnic arts were linked to non-Western cultures, especially those from Africa. During the same decade outsider art was defined as the product of artists outside a Western aesthetic. Visionary art emerged as the product of individuals’ dreams and visions, and folk architecture forms such as shotgun and dogtrot houses were labeled vernacular art. Many artists combined several genres.
Pottery and basketry were important crafts among indigenous groups of the Southeast, including the Mississippian culture Natchez Chiefdom and the Choctaw, who still practice split-cane basketry, one of the oldest indigenous crafts. A common pattern consists of a cross inside a diamond. The most frequently used pattern is a five/five herringbone. Commonly used colors, some of which may be symbolic, include yellow, red, purple, brown, and black. Basket forms include the winnowing basket, tray or catch basket, sieve, pack basket, hamper, carrying or burden basket, triangular basket, elbow basket, and lunch basket. The Choctaw, Europeans, and African Americans wove white oak and pine-needle baskets.
By the early nineteenth century, quilts had become primary bed coverings. European and African American craftspersons made whole-cloth, broderie perse, appliqué, and pieced quilts. Among the many patterns used were Whig Rose, Whig’s Defeat, Martha Washington’s Flower Garden, Star of Bethlehem, Feathered Star, Princess Feather, Tulip, Pomegranate, Drunkard’s Path, Irish Chain, Pinwheel, Log Cabin, and Nine Patch. Some patterns made symbolic references, while others were merely decorative. Essie Emaline Epting Myers and Pecolia Warner were among the many outstanding Mississippi quilters.
Art scholar Patti Carr Black has called walking canes the most widespread sculptural form produced by Mississippi woodcarvers. Snakes, frogs, alligators, turtles, and humans are frequent subjects. Carvers include Victor “Hickory Stick Vic” Bobb from Vicksburg, Leon Rucker from Jefferson County, and Luster Willis from near Crystal Springs.
Elijah Pierce, from near Baldwyn, was one of Mississippi’s most renowned folk sculptors. Recognized as a National Heritage Fellow, he established an art gallery in his barber’s shop (now a National Historic Site) in Columbus, Ohio. Pierce carved walking canes, freestanding sculpture, and elaborate painted biblical reliefs. Book of Wood depicts the life of Jesus and was used along with other carved reliefs to illustrate Pierce’s sermons. The Columbus Museum of Art holds a major collection of his works.
George Williams of Amite County carved human figures and miniature heads as good luck charms. Sulton Rogers, from Lafayette County, whittled what he called “futures”—images from dreams. A skilled carpenter, Rogers created a stream of haints—corpses in coffins, snakes, vampires, and fanged and deformed figures. Beginning as a child, James “Son” Thomas, a blues musician from Leland, made animals from clay, but his signature form became the human skull.
A number of Mississippi artists were inspired by dreams, visions, and memories. Theora Hamblett, from Paris, painted all three. Her vision paintings were often populated with deceased relatives and acquaintances and filled with revelations and messages. More numerous were her paintings of childhood memories, landscapes, and more than two hundred children’s games. Ethel Wright Mohamed, from near Eupora, stitched narratives and family memories in thread.
William Beecher, from Bay St. Louis, produced what French artist Jean Dubuffet called Art Brut (raw art), original and uncorrupted by cultural conditioning, the art of the alienated, the insane, and the self-taught. Beecher was committed to a mental institution in 1940 and began painting memories in vivid colors after being transferred to a geriatric hospital thirty-one years later. Self-taught painters Henry Speller, from Rolling Fork, and his wife, Georgia, from Aberdeen, produced erotic drawings and paintings while living in Memphis. M. B. Mayfield, who was born in Ecru, sculpted and painted Mississippi genre using discarded materials and plant juices.
The folk art environment is particularly suited to the Mississippi context. Rev. H. D. Dennis (born near Mayersville) began transforming his wife’s business, Margaret’s Grocery and Market near Vicksburg, following their marriage in 1984 and by 1990 had converted it into a showpiece of biblical and Masonic symbolism. Inside were replicas of the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Window shutters outside were painted with compasses, squares, all-seeing eyes, and the letter G. When Steve Tuminello photographed the environment in 1991, the sidewalk leading to the doorway was painted with compasses and squares and a red-and-white checkerboard pavement, perhaps a reference to Masonic tracing boards. The sidewalk passed through an arched gateway that supported the store sign and a cutout double-headed eagle, “Margaret’s Grocery and Market, The Home of the Double-Headed Eagle.” The pillars of the gateway were inscribed with the letters J and B, which are standard in tracing-board designs.
The Kosciusko front yard of L. V. Hull, born in McAdams, is an assemblage of painted shoes, car tires, bed frames, toys, television monitors, signs, collectibles, bottles, planters, flowers, and shrubs. Inside, painted furniture, Christmas tree ornaments, beaded bottles, biblical inscriptions, jewelry, and cigarette lighter assemblages create an environment that a child once described as “Santa’s Workshop.” Determined to keep busy and avoid idleness, Hull has created a yard and house that invite passersby to enter and commune with the artist.
The home/workshop/art gallery/café of Earl Wayne Simmons, born in Warren County, was a living environment before it burned in 2002. With no building codes to restrain him, Simmons began constructing walls around salvaged windows. Over twenty-three years he assembled thirty-two rooms of various sizes, with stairs winding in and out among multiple levels. Handmade painted signs advertised snacks, beverages, and cigarettes. A large sculpture made of Kool cigarette packs greeted visitors on the lawn. Simmons furnished his “saloon” by building jukeboxes that played eight-track tapes. The jukeboxes became a signature form that attracted commissions from the House of Blues nightclubs.
Mary T. Smith, from Copiah County, built an environment of painted slogans, script, self-portraits, family and neighbors’ portraits, scarecrows, and assemblages on her one-acre lot alongside a main highway into Hazlehurst. Her signature paintings, made on scavenged tin and often of Jesus and the Holy Trinity, hung on her fence and outbuildings. Debilitated by poor hearing and inarticulate speech from childhood, Smith used paintings to communicate.
Shotgun and dogtrot houses were common forms of Mississippi vernacular architecture. Scholar John Michael Vlach has traced the shotgun—a long, narrow house with rooms connected directly to one another (no hallways) and doors aligned in a row—back through New Orleans to Haiti and to West Africa. The dogtrot house (also called dog-run or double log cabin) evolved from the single-room log cabin built by settlers. As the need for space increased, two log cabins would be joined under one roof with a breezeway for ventilation between them.
Whether producing baskets, woodcarvings, memory drawings, vision paintings, environments, or vernacular architecture, Mississippi artists occupy a significant niche in the major genres created by the common folk.
- Paul Arnett and William Arnett, eds., Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art (2001)
- Jim Barnett, The Natchez Indians (1998)
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- William Ferris, Local Color: A Sense of Place in Folk Art (1982)
- Marshall Gettys, ed., Basketry of Southeastern Indians (1984)
- Theora Hamblett, Dreams and Visions (1975); Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Mississippi Quilts (2001)
- John Michael Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts (1978)