Visionary art is conventionally defined as art with spiritual or mystical themes. It suggests a wider vision of awareness or portrays experiences based on such awareness. In Mississippi, where evangelical Christianity dominates, much of the visionary art is specifically religious in nature.
Both trained and self-taught artists produce visionary works, but the majority comes from the untrained folk art or intuitive genres. The first visionary artist in Mississippi to gain national recognition was Oxford’s Theora Hamblett. A schoolteacher and poultry farmer, she took art classes at the University of Mississippi in her fifties and began painting. She became famous statewide as a “primitive” artist who painted memories of her childhood, dreams, and “divine revelations.” “There are people who call my visions weird,” she said, “but to me they are very real and very true to life.” The Museum of Modern Art bought one of her canvases in 1954, pegging her art as visionary and changing the painting’s title from The Golden Gate to the more explicit The Vision.
Mary Tillman Smith of Hazlehurst was always explicit in her religious influence, explaining that she painted bold enamel portraits on corrugated tin or weathered boards “to please the Lord.” She frequently incorporated biblical exhortations and prayers into her designs.
Woodcarvers in the folk tradition often include religious references in their work. Both George Williams of Amite County and Sulton Rogers of Oxford have produced crucifixion scenes as well as portraits of devils. Willie Barton produced a variety of angels.
Exact assignment of artistic style as visionary art is sometimes difficult when other influences are present. For example, surrealism and fantastic realism might feature dreams, fantasies, otherworldliness, the grotesque or drug experiences. Woodcarvers Willie Barton of Union and Joe Williams of Jackson produced fanciful dragons, and Lynn Green Root included hands in many of her paintings to express a spiritual dimension.
Mississippi has also traditionally had visionary environments: structures or sculpture areas created by visionary artists. The most famous example is Margaret’s Grocery north of Vicksburg. Rev. H. D. Dennis promised his wife-to-be, “Margaret, marry me and I’ll build you a palace.” He began in 1980, turning a simple community store into an ever-evolving monument to wife, God, and humanity. Bright reds, whites, blues, and yellows adorned the walls, pillars, and archways at the entrance to the structure. In addition, the building featured icons of Christianity and Freemasonry and hand-lettered signs proclaiming, “This is the Church of Christ, The only one He Build,” and “All is welcome, Jews and Gentiles, here at Margaret’s Gro. & Mkt and Bible Class.” Of the fifty-foot tower overlooking a gravel parking lot, Dennis said, “God keeps telling me to keep going higher.” Since Dennis’s death in 2012, however, Margaret’s Grocery has fallen into ruins.
It is not clear that Loy Allen Bowlin of McComb, who called himself the Rhinestone Cowboy, had a mystical impetus in his work, but he called his creation his “beautiful holy jewel home.” Working on poster boards in mosaics of dazzling colors and designs, he created an overwhelming environment with glittery sequins and rhinestones covering every inch of the walls and ceilings in his four-room house and his 1967 Cadillac.
One example of yard art that had a mystical beginning has now entered the realm of popular decorative art. African Americans originally created bottle trees to catch evil spirits. Today they are found in not only in the yards of rural cabins but also on urban lawns and patios. Far beyond the Milk of Magnesia bottles of the early twentieth century, today’s bottle tree may sport imported champagne or hand-blown bottles.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- Theora Hamblett, Theora Hamblett’s Paintings (1975)
- Alice Rae Yelen, ed., Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present (1993)