Highlights from the Collection

Gift of Michael A. Mennello in memory of the Honorable Marilyn L. Mennello, Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art.

Museum Founder Michael Mennello shares over 20 examples of early 20th Century painting and seminal works from his American Impressionist Collection.  Masterpieces include work by renowned artists: Guy Carlton Wiggins, Lilla Cabot Perry, Pauline Lennards Palmer, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Henry Salem Hubbell, Louis Ritman, among others.  One special highlight: three Henry Salem Hubbell paintings, including his famous work Building of the House (1930), was featured at City Hall’s Rotunda for years This gift, presented to the museum on May 1, 2018, is valued at more than $8.75 million and appraised by Debra Force Fine Art, LLC, New York.

This is my dream come true, one 20 years in the making.  I am grateful for the visionary Mayor Buddy Dyer for helping me fulfill my dear Marilyn’s dream of a creating a museum with our treasured art collection and share it in perpetuity with the City of Orlando.  The greatest joy of my life was assembling this fine collection of American art with Marilyn – and now I entrust it to the museum for generations to come.

–Michael Mennello

Purvis Young (American, b. 1943, Liberty City, Miami, FL – d. 2010, Miami, FL)
Heads Above the Street, 1991 
Oil, wood, vinyl, masonite, metal brackets 
59 x 35 inches 
Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Museum Purchase, 1998-002-000 

Purvis Young is an acclaimed self-taught artist who began painting in the 1960s while serving the last of his teenage years in prison for breaking and entering. Throughout his career as an artist, Young fashioned activated scenes of angels, horses, figures, and cities drawing inspiration from art books at the public library, music, historical documentaries, as well as the social movements around the country and the reality of life for himself and others living in Miami’s historic Overtown Black community.  

Infamously, Young is probably best known for his work in the 1970s inspired by the mural movements taking place in Detroit and Chicago. The artist began hanging his paintings on the boarded up windows of Jamaican Bakery store fronts in “Goodbread Alley,” setting the stage for a successful career at the attention of Miami’s and America’s top patrons until his death in 2010. In Heads Above the City Street, Young depicts a musical celebration of musicians as floating heads metaphorically rising above the multistoried buildings. Waves of silhouetted figures dance below in singular brush strokes as the hot energy of the concrete city comes to life in the warmth of fiery reds and yellows.  

I been drawing all my life, but I taught myself to paint in the early seventies. I seen people protesting. I seen the war going on. Then I found out how these guys paint their feelings up North, paint on walls. Wall of Respect. That’s when I start painting like that.
– Purvis Young, Taken from interviews with Purvis Young by William Arnett and Larry Clemons in 1994 and 1995

Nellie Mae Rowe (American, b. 1900, Fayette County – d. 1982, Vinings, GA)
Untitled (Bearded Lady), 1978
Crayon, graphite, marker on paper
19 x 24 inches
Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Museum Purchase, 1999-045-000

Self-Taught Artist, Nellie Mae Rowe (b. Fayette County, GA 1900 – d. Vinings, GA 1982) grew up on her father’s sharecropping farm in Fayette County, Georgia, the second youngest of nine other siblings. Here she helped her parents with the cotton harvests as well as caring for the animals, and modest food crops while developing her own passion for creating – drawing on the floor and fashioning dolls from clothes any time she had the chance. Leaving home at 17, Rowe worked on farms with her first and second husbands and as a maid. It wasn’t until after Henry Rowe’s death in 1948 that Nellie Mae Rowe began drawing again with a fervor, producing the bright otherworldly narrative scenes she is best known for, sculpting figures from gum, and adorning her home, what Rowe called her “Playhouse,” with her creations both inside and out. Success came to Rowe late in life – her first solo exhibition took place the same year as her 78th birthday at the Alexander Gallery in Atlanta, she would travel only once out of Georgia and into New York to see her work at the Parsons/Dreyfus Gallery, and the year she passed, Rowe’s work was included in the historic Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC.  

In her 1978 drawing Untitled (Bearded Lady), a vine of blooming roses, and three human figures dominate the composition. The women to the left are seated toward each other, well dressed with detailed hairstyles wearing blush and lipstick. Perhaps they are discussing or imagining the scene to the side of the third figure, sometimes called the bearded lady, who is smoking a pipe, wearing slicked-back hair (or a turban or helmet). It is as though the figure walks a large, curly-haired cat into another plane indicated not only by the change in surface color but also by the purple shadow-like cat emerging from within. An inception of imagination, the enigmatic figure might also be envisaging a tale or memory of agriculture above their own head. Rowe’s dramatic meeting of color fields feels akin to the fauvist application of color, rife with emotion and glowing in transcendence.

It is just like a dream to me when I see those things. Most of the things that I draw, I don’t know what they are by name. People say, ‘Nellie, what is that?’ I say I don’t know, it is what it is. That is all I know. But I know one thing, I draw what is in my mind. I draw things you haven’t seen born into this world, but these things may someday be born but I’ll be on through.
– Nellie Mae Rowe, Interview by Judith Alexander, 1983

William Edmondson
(b. 1874 Davidson County, TN – d. 1951 Nashville, TN)
Little Woman, N.D., limestone
Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art

Born the son of freed Slaves, William Edmondson worked as a laborer and janitor before he heard an otherworldly call to take up an old railroad spike and chisel his first creation.  Edmondson began his career as an artist by carving tombstones from discarded blocks of limestone to create grave markers for African Americans in his Nashville community. He later expanded upon this practice, carving a menagerie of animals as well as secular and religious figures in the round  – from nurses and brides to angels and the Virgin Mary. Edmondson’s Little Woman, illustrates the artists depiction of the female form. Here, a woman with chin length wavy-hair, wearing an apron or dress stands with her head held high, evoking dignified presence.

The artist placed completed works on his front lawn garnering the attention of passersby.  In 1936 Edmondson was brought to the attention of Alfred Barr, then Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) through photographer Louis Dahl-Wolfe of Harper’s Bazar, which resulted in the first solo exhibition of an African American artist at MoMA the next year. He continued to create throughout his life, selling his work alongside his produce. 

First He told me to make tombstones; then He told me to cut the figures. I do according to the wisdom of God. He gives me the mind and the hand, I suppose, and then I go ahead and carve these things.
—William Edmondson

Mary Proctor
(b. 1960 Lloyd, FL)
Train up a Child, N.D., paint on door
Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art

“Missionary” Mary L. Proctor began painting in 1995, receiving her inspiration from God, under the shade of an old oak tree to “Paint the Way.” Proctor had taken a month to fast and pray for guidance following the heartbreaking death of her grandmother, aunt, and uncle who were killed in a house fire the year prior. Painting was the answer. Proctor’s very first works were a set of three doors, each memorializing one of the loved ones she was grieving. Over time, her work began to incorporate multiple media forming assemblages embellished with craft and found materials. 

Proctor’s Christian faith plays a large role in her work, painting messages or ideas listened for while reflecting on her bible readings. She is interested in choosing subjects, themes, and bible verses that would positively impact the viewer or collector of the work. In Train up a Child, Proctor conveys a bible verse encouraging the viewer to raise one’s children to know the love of God. Her use of doors as a substrate for what are often portraits, also serves as a metaphorical reminder of Jesus as the doorway to heaven. 

I see the LORD! You see it? The joy? This the world I wanna surround myself with!
—Mary L. Proctor

Barbara Sorensen
(b. Racine, WI 1945)
Siren I, 2003, bronze, Gift of the artist.
Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, 2017.03.01

Barbara Sorensen’s exploration of the landscape as inspiration in her sculptural practice has been described by renowned art historian Eleanor Heartney as “poetic images drawn from nature.” Sorensen’s Siren I is, in essence, an extension of her ceramic chalices, twisted and formed, brought to staggering heights, transformed from sacred container to a realized figural form, a personal and methodological testimony to formation. For Heartney, the Goddesses in Sorensen’s work specifically express “an ideal of life as a process of continual transformation…Blending the vessel and the female body, these embody a feminine spirit celebrating the generative processes of woman and artist.”

I instinctively respond to the form, surface and texture of the Earth, echoing them in my work. I look at the landscape, interpret and reinterpret it, processing it within, and give it back, transformed.
—Barbara Sorensen

Barbara Sorensen
(b. Racine, WI 1945)
Hanging Boats, 2007, stoneware, stones, and paint.

Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Gift of Barbara Sorensen, 2016.

Inspired by the fjords of Milford Sound, New Zealand, Sorensen’s Boats intersect at the realms of light and dark, sacred and profane—where heavy, ceramic vessels float effortlessly between disparate borders and into gradations of gray.

As is true in the Chalice series, Sorensen’s Boats create a metaphorical space to be filled or occupied and then emptied or left. The viewer is placed nearly eye level with the boats, able to see the undulations and changes of layers on the surface as well as the immensity, which would normally be hidden below in shadowy waters. The roughened outer surface, bulges and displays signs of weathering leaving behind only traces of a harsh, uncontrollable environment of water and wind. The rocks, pebbles, and incisions remind the viewer of a sea vessel, which has in its past hit a jagged shoreline and built up a protective outer shell of barnacles over time. The inside remains smooth and organic, but also molded by the journey. We are left with the trace of natural forces beyond human control, left in the space of stillness, quietude, and somber waters after the rough passing of storms.


Barbara Sorensen
(b. Racine, WI 1945)
Chalice Forest, 1999 – 2014, stoneware, stones, gold and silver leaf.

Collection of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Gift of Michael A. Mennello, 2016.

The Chalice Forest rises fatefully upward from the dark toward the sky, revealing the artist’s stratigraphic layers of production highlighted and shadowed dramatically in hints of light. The hand of the artist is evident, fingerprints build these mounting structures, emulating epic geological formations of the earth’s visible crust, which simultaneously collide, rise, and pull apart at their seams. For Sorensen, the malleable quality of clay as a medium pushes her to mold and modify the earth, just as natural forces shape the world we see.

These vessels, which allude to monumental structures of the earth turned upside down as ritual goblets are destined to be filled with offerings. While the chalices are empty, they burst with a golden glow and the implication of an invisible, spiritual gift. Sorensen exploits the immense visual weight of the minutely tapered chalice suggesting a gift that will also extend beyond the walls of the sculptural form.

Everything drew me to it: the touching; the feeling; the making of something from absolutely nothing. I loved the tactile quality of the clay; the pushing and pulling of the earth; I loved physically moving the clay and building it; I fell in love with clay.

—Barbara Sorensen