Auburn’s new exhibition ‘From Her Innermost Self’ showcases visionary works by self-taught Southern women artists

Museum celebrates women’s suffrage centennial with exhibitions, programs
Published: February 17, 2020
Updated: February 18, 2020
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The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University will open a new exhibition that offers viewers a look at visions of race, culture, spirituality and everyday life in the South by self-taught 20th-century women artists who operated beyond the bounds of the mainstream art world.

“From Her Innermost Self: Visionary Art of Southern Women,” on view Feb. 18 through May 24, contains more than 30 mixed media pieces created by Southern visionary folk artists including Minnie Adkins, Mozell Benson, Georgia Blizzard, Minnie Evans, Lorraine Gendron, Sybil Gibson, Bessie Harvey, Clementine Hunter, Annie Lykes Lucas, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Mary L. Proctor, Juanita Rogers, Mary Rogers, Mattie Ross, Nellie Mae Rowe, Bernice Sims, Mary Tillman Smith, Annie Tolliver, Inez Walker, Myrtice West, Mary Frances Whitfield and Ruby C. Williams.

Themes in the exhibition range from depictions of daily life experiences to spiritual visions and poignant historical incidents. Working often with little or no formal training, the artists address their subjects using a broad spectrum of media such as painted wood carvings, ceramics, watercolor, hand-stitched quilts and painted metal.

“The art is profoundly heartfelt and accessible,” said Museum Director and Chief Curator Cindi Malinick. “Any viewer can connect to some aspect of it—whether through a familiar figure like a barnyard rooster or on a deeper, subconscious level, like the fears or visions encountered in a dream.”

Featured in the exhibition are two Mary Whitfield paintings on loan from Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects in Brooklyn, New York. Both works, “Work Day” and “Narrative: Bessie’s Handstand, in Memory of My Sister Bessie and My Brother Greg, June 2002,” portray scenes of rural life in the Jim Crow-era South. 

“The two Whitfield paintings in our exhibition reflect bucolic images of community life, but her overall body of work expresses an affecting, nuanced understanding of the African American experience of that time period,” Malinick said. “In a number of her other paintings, she is confronting the viewer with unflinching depictions of lynching and the human toll of racial intolerance.”

Many works in “From Her Innermost Self” evoke defining moments in American history and culture. Paintings by Brewton, Alabama, native and civil rights activist Bernice Sims commemorate singular events like the courageous efforts of first responders on Sept. 11, 2001, in “New York Heroes” or depict the momentous 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in “Selma Bridge.”

Paintings from the “Revelations” series by Alabamian Myrtice West are another highlight of the new exhibition. West’s rapturous oil paintings, which she felt “called to paint,” vividly illustrate chapters from the Bible’s final book.

“One of the most important artists in the exhibition is Myrtice West,” said Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions. “Her ‘Revelations’ paintings are significant works of art that are widely admired and discussed. She is a true visionary artist in every respect.”

Another featured piece of “From Her Innermost Self” is a Gee’s Bend quilt crafted by Mattie Ross, a member of the Freedom Quilting Bee that operated from 1966 to 2012 throughout Alabama’s Black Belt region. Recognized for their colorful, improvised geometric patterns, Gee’s Bend quilts have come to be appreciated as one of the most significant contributions by African Americans to national art and culture. The quilt-making skill is passed matrilineally.

“The Ross quilt is one of our exhibition’s centerpieces,” Malinick said. “The museum has long desired to acquire one given its national stature. It’s a wonderful addition to any university collection.”

The exhibition features artwork exclusively created by women, an approach Malinick says is part of the museum’s larger 2020 programming initiative that focuses on the significant, yet underrepresented contributions of women artists. 

“This year, we’ve aligned with museums across the country who are promoting women artists and their work,” Malinick said. “Our new exhibition gives greater visibility to a group of women that have traditionally been marginalized not only by gender but by their status as visionary, or outsider, artists.”

In the context of the exhibition, the term “visionary” describes art that arises from an inner vision or compulsion to create. It defines a specific type of art that is more broadly encompassed by folk art, works created by artists without formal training or a particular school of influence—often ascribed an “outsider” status, a term that in itself can marginalize.

“The art in ‘From Her Innermost Self’ was created by women whose work, for a variety of reasons, was considered peripheral and perhaps given less credence,” Malinick said. “One of the goals of this exhibition is to show art defined in a more expansive and inclusive way, forms of individual expression that would be discounted by narrower understandings of how art should be made and by whom.”

“From Her Innermost Self” is co-curated by Malinick and Harper. All museum exhibitions are free and open to the public. Guests are also encouraged to explore current exhibitions “Vessels and Their Voices: The Legacy of Alabama Pottery,” on view through March 1 in the Bill L. Harbert Gallery and Gallery C, “Feminist Forms: Contemporary Sculpture from the Permanent Collection,” on view through May 3 in the Noel and Kathryn Wadsworth Gallery,  and “Out of the Box: A Juried Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition,” on view through Oct. 4 on the grounds of the museum and Gogue Performing Arts Center. 

Located at 901 S. College St. in Auburn, Alabama, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. and Sunday 1-4 p.m. A $5 donation is appreciated. For more information, visit jcsm.auburn.edu.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.