Self-Taught Black Artists in the American South

Last updated on January 01, 2024





ORLANDO, FLORIDA — The exhibition Self-Taught Black Artists in the American South presents the work of 14 artists who painted and sculpted outside of the mainstream art world in the American South beginning in the 1970s. Often labeled as self-taught, the artists on display did not have institutionalized academic training and many lived in severe poverty, and have thus been marginalized from the dominant conversations on American Art. Yet, each has created works of art that widely contribute to a holistic understanding of class, race, expression, and creativity in the United States today.  


The artists featured here have all been driven by an impassioned desire to create no matter their circumstances, some began with intensity after a major life event, like the death of a loved one or incarceration. These artists often worked industriously utilizing discarded materials typically thought of as refuse as stand-ins for canvas on which to draw, paint, and in some cases sculpt. As artists, they sought to convey ideas of both pain and joy, which included aspects of faith, labor, and sentiment in the American South - moments of Black experience in the era following Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. 


Black artists in the American South have magnificently depicted spiritual impulses, healing, and daily life, approaching their art form as the mainstream artists of their time – instinctively working with new material, spontaneous form, line, and color all while emphasizing their own unique perspectives. Selected from the Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, these works highlight the strength of the museum’s holdings in self-taught art, especially artwork created by Black women.  


Artists Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Clementine Hunter both depicted their experiences of life in the sharecropping industry of the rural South. Alyne Harris, Mary Proctor, and Sister Gertrude Morgan painted biblical themes and moralizing messages enthusiastically sharing what they felt were important lessons from their Christian faiths. Nellie Mae Rowe, Minnie Evans, and Jesse Aaron automatically painted and sculpted spiritually divined visions, dreams, and revelations for all to understand. Ruby C. Williams, Mose Tolliver and Mary T. Smith painted bold subjects meant to entice passersby to their businesses, successfully marketing their work to collectors both local and national. Purvis Young and Ronald Lockett continued the conversation of neo-expressionism by painting vibrant and roughly abstracted subjects fraught with raw emotion in response to the social and economic experiences they endured as Black Men in the American South.



Curator Katherine Page states– I am delighted to share from our collection the work of these 14 self-taught, Black artists – to relay the stories of each individual’s life and their powerful responses to their time in the American South. This grouping of influential and important artists demonstrates what topics and subject matter were significant to communicate for oneself and community, yielding art works that explore materiality, emotion, symbolism, and heritage.

SELF-TAUGHT BLACK ARTISTS IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH is organized by the Mennello Museum of American Art and curated by Katherine Page, Curator of Art and Education, Mennello Museum of American Art.

Mennello Museum of American Art and its exhibitions are generously supported by the City of Orlando and Friends of the Mennello Museum of American Art.  Additional funding is provided by Orange County Government through the Arts & Cultural Affairs Program and United Arts of Central Florida.  Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture.

About the Museum

Mennello Museum of American Art is owned and operated by the City of Orlando and is located on the beautiful shore of Lake Formosa in Orlando’s Loch Haven Cultural Park. The museum provides residents and visitors welcoming opportunities to understand and value creativity through innovative experiences with art further connecting it to nature and communal gathering. Our goal is to encourage creative and diverse experiences with art that nurtures audiences while reflecting the dynamic relationship between art and society.  In addition to housing the permanent collection of folk modernist Earl Cunningham, the museum presents temporary exhibitions that feature a broad range of American art from traditional to contemporary practices.


Mennello Museum is located at 900 E. Princeton Street, Orlando, FL 32803.


Link to images: Self-Taught Black Artists in the American South


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