Ornery Artist's Hand-Lettered Screeds Helped Him Keep The World At Bay | KBIA

Ornery Artist's Hand-Lettered Screeds Helped Him Keep The World At Bay

Feb 8, 2015
Originally published on February 8, 2015 10:41 am

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."

Howard's work hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. Now, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has opened the first comprehensive survey of his work.

An Art Environment At Sorehead Hill

Howard's canvas was most often a wooden plank, some scrap metal salvaged from dilapidated outbuildings or any piece of farm equipment with a flat surface big enough to whitewash with house paint and cover with carefully-lettered, all-cap screeds.

The signs filled his 20-acre compound in the woodsy hills around the small town of Fulton, Mo. He called it "Sorehead Hill," but Smithsonian folk art curator Leslie Umberger calls it 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."

Howard was one of three artists who started building these environments in the 1940s and '50s — Fred Smith in Wisconsin and Sam Rodia in California were the others. Before long, more well-known artists like Roger Brown and Jasper Johns started paying attention.

"It is completely different than what's happening in kind of the staid halls of mainstream art," Umberger says. "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."

And Howard had to fight. According to Jeffrey Uslip, chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, some of Howard's neighbors tore down his signs and vandalized his property. "In 1952, his neighbors applied to have him committed to an asylum," Uslip says. "And in, you know, '54 Jesse went to Washington to seek reparation. So it was a very fraught existence."

Howard got no help from Washington, but he managed to avoid the asylum.

Wall-To-Wall Jesse Howard

Having spent his early years as a migrant worker, Howard settled down to make his art while his wife took in ironing to scrape together a living. Then, in the late 1960s, the magazine Art in America ran a story about him. Artists started making pilgrimages to Fulton, and professors at the Kansas City Art Institute invited him to be a visiting artist. Raechell Smith, a curator at the institute, says, "I think it must have been a significant time for him in that he was surrounded by people who were recognizing him as an artist."

The institute now owns most of Howard's work, and loaned many of its pieces for the St. Louis show. Uslip also borrowed the Smithsonian's lone piece, as well as work from private collections, to recreate Howard's art environment. "What I wanted the exhibition to present is an authentic way in which Jesse lived and worked, which was floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, fully enveloping the viewer in his first-person narrative," he says. "And I wanted to stay true to that."

Jesse Howard died in 1983, but there's a reason his new show is in a contemporary art museum: His art is still relevant, especially considering what's been happening in the streets of Ferguson, just outside St. Louis. "Life in St. Louis is a very charged time right now," Uslip says. "And I think Jesse's first-person narrative really speaks to a larger trajectory of how people are with each other, how people handle diversity and volatility, but really how this type of voice came to fruition."

Howard once said, "There's hundreds of people that can't speak what they want to speak. I do." Speaking what he wanted to speak didn't make life easy for Howard, but now at least people are listening.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By all accounts, Jesse Howard was cantankerous, and his art showed it. The Missouri man used any and all materials around his property to create signs and symbols that illustrated his point of view on the world. Today, his artwork hangs in some of the premier museums across the country. Now the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis has just opened the first comprehensive exhibit of his works. C. J. Janovy of member station KCUR in Kansas City has the story.

C.J. JANOVY, BYLINE: In the middle of last century, it wasn't unusual to see hand-painted signs on country roads advertising a traveling fair or a farm sale. Jesse Howard's signs offered Bible verses. They proclaimed his anger at his neighbors and the government, his disappointments with the world around him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE HOWARD: Every word I'm saying's the truth - every word.

JANOVY: Every word was the truth for Howard. His canvas was most often a wooden plank or some scrap metal salvaged from dilapidated outbuildings or any piece of farm equipment with a flat surface big enough to whitewash with house paint and cover with carefully-lettered, all-cap screeds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What a mess, and the whole earth was one language and of one speech. One language confounded their language. Read on, Babylon. The great has fallen. It's fallen.

JANOVY: That's an actor reading what Howard wrote on a white-painted saw blade attached to an old can of a scroll covered in text. It goes on and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. I am for peace. But when I speak, they are for war.

JANOVY: The signs filled Howard's 20-acre compound in the woodsy hills around small-town Fulton, Mo. He called it Sorehead Hill. Leslie Umberger, the curator of folk art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, calls it an art environment.

LESLIE UMBERGER: Personal spaces that are built or constructed by an individual who, for whatever reason, decides to kind of reshape his or her corner of the world.

JANOVY: Howard was one of three artists who started building these environments in the 1940s and '50s. Fred Smith in Wisconsin and Sam Rodia in California were the others. Before long, more well-known artists like Roger Brown and Jasper Johns started paying attention.

UMBERGER: And it is completely different than what's happening in kind of the staid halls of mainstream art. 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: And Howard had to fight. Some of his neighbors tore down his signs and vandalized his property.

JEFFREY USLIP: In 1952, his neighbors applied to have him committed to an asylum. And in '54, Jesse went to Washington to seek reparation. So it was a very fraught existence.

JANOVY: That's Jeffrey Uslip, chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Howard got no help from Washington, but he managed to avoid the asylum. Having spent his early years as a migrant worker, Howard settled down to make his art while his wife took in ironing to scrape together a living. Then, in the late 1960s, art in America ran a story about him. Artists made pilgrimages to Fulton, and professors at the Kansas City Art Institute invited him to be a visiting artist. Raechell Smith is the curator there.

RAECHELL SMITH: It must have been a significant time for him in that he was surrounded by people who were recognizing him as an artist.

JANOVY: The Kansas City Art Institute now owns most of Howard's work and loaned many of its pieces for the St. Louis show. Curator Jeffrey Uslip also borrowed the one piece that's in the Smithsonian, as well as work from private collections, to recreate Jesse Howard's art environment.

USLIP: What I wanted the exhibition to present is an authentic way in which Jesse lived and worked, which was floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, fully enveloping the viewer in his first-person narrative. And I wanted to stay true to that.

JANOVY: Jesse Howard died in 1983. But there's a reason Howard's new show is in a contemporary art museum. It's still relevant, especially considering what's been happening in the streets of Ferguson just outside St. Louis.

USLIP: Life in St. Louis is a very charged time right now. And I think Jesse's first-person narrative really speaks to a larger trajectory of how people are with each other, how people handle diversity and volatility, but really how this type of voice came to fruition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD: There's hundreds of people that can't speak, but they want to speak. I do.

JANOVY: Speaking what he wanted to speak didn't make life easy for Jesse Howard. But now, at least, people are listening. For NPR News, I'm C. J. Janovy in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.