|Greenville, California, March 2013|
By all accounts, self-taught artist Jesse Howard was cantankerous. In middle of the last century, it wasn't unusual to see hand-painted signs on country roads advertising a traveling fair or a farm sale. But Howard's signs offered Bible verses. They proclaimed his anger at his neighbors and the government, and his disappointments with the world around him. "Every word I'm saying's the truth," the artist said of his work. "Every word."
|Seen in Madison County, AR, May, 2010|
|Court Street, Jasper, Arkansas 2011|
Leslie Umberger, the Smithsonian folk art curator, explains the significance of Howard's work—and the work of others who built such environments in the 1940s and 1950s, including Sam Rodia in California and Fred Smith in Wisconsin. Umberger says Sorehead hill was an
"art environment," or a personal space that's "built or constructed by an individual who, for whatever reason, decides to kind of reshape his or her corner of the world."
According to Umberger, well-known artists like Roger Brown and Jasper Johns ultimately took note of what Howard, Rodia and Smith were doing. Umberger continues:
And it makes a big difference because people start to really equate this radicalism with having a strong voice, a strong opinion, being truly original, for standing up for what you believe in and fighting for it.
Janovy reports, too, that Howard had to fight neighbors who "tore down his signs and vandalized his property," even seeking in 1952 "to have committed to an asylum," a fate he was able to avoid.
All of this reminded me of some of the hand-painted screeds I have seen in rural places in recent years. One is from Greenville, California, population, 1,129 (top), and the other near the community of Marble in Madison County, Arkansas, population 15,701. These are similar to Howard in the sense of protesting against the government—or in the case of the Madison County sign, another individual--in one way or another.
|Hwy. 7 South, Jasper, Arkansas, November, 2011|
|Hwy. 7 South, Jasper, Arkansas 2011; sign reads "Not Responsible for Accidents|
Whatever it is, the owner is concerned about fending off liability because the latter version, two years after the first, features sign that says "NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS." (Very interesting for the torts professor in me). While perhaps not political, all seem fairly artistic to me. In particular, the last two photos of the same place two years apart show the proprietor becoming more artistic (and perhaps less entrepreneurial—less interesting in selling stuff than in displaying cultural artifacts in an interesting, even pleasing way) over time …