Ann and Ted Oliver from North Carolina talk about the painting behind them: Jim Gary Phillips (American, born in 1951-), Little Maggie, 2009, acrylic on cabinet door, 28 x 19 inches. Courtesy of Ann and Ted Oliver.
"This is the first museum exhibition that Jim Gary Phillips’s work has been a part of," southern Outsider art collector Ted Oliver told us at the beginning of his lecture on Outsider Visions: Self-Taught Southern Artists of the 20th-Century, currently on view at the museum. In spite of difficulties like low incomes, lack of formal education and health issues, the Olivers told us, southern Outsider artists have enjoyed an increase in both value and recognition over the past years.
Though there are 41 different artists included in this exhibition, common themes are apparent throughout the gallery. The Olivers succeeded in showing us the common underpinnings that exist in southern Outsider art and regaled us with tales of unexpected adventure from when they traveled throughout the south buying this art straight from the source. In 2005, after retiring from teaching in Georgia, the Olivers took to the road to meet the artists who live on unnamed side streets in rural towns from Texas to South Carolina. They amassed a collection of Outsider art that now numbers more than 1,000 pieces. In our downstairs galleries you can see such disparate scenes as the baptism of Christ to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. However, you could just as easily find artworks with a common theme, such as stories from the Old Testament and depictions of families attending church services.
The first thing the Olivers showed us on their tour was a quilt created by Chris Clark. Clark would both sew the quilts and then paint images right on top of the fabric. The one we have on display shows his aunt, Henrietta Clark, dressed in her Sunday best, a traditional large, fancy church hat attached to the quilt on top of the painted woman’s head. Ann Oliver ruefully recalled a visit with Clark when she discovered a large cache of fancy church hats that he kept for just that purpose, to sew onto his painted quilts. Ann was permitted to try all of them on until she grabbed for his mama’s, which resulted in some chastisement on his part and the learning of a lesson on Ann’s, that being, a mama’s hat is only to be admired with your eyes, from a distance. Nobody puts on mama’s hat but mama.
When the Olivers moved on to Lorenzo Scott’s paintings, the stories became a bit darker. Scott suffered the loss of his fiancée in a tragic accident and she figures prominently in his paintings, both before and after her death, such as in Self-Portrait with Children and Girlfriend. Scott claims to see visions of her still, and can sometimes feel her presence in other people.
Further along in the gallery, the Olivers discussed painter Bernice Sims, a southern woman who lived through the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968). Many of her paintings poignantly address the social upheaval of America during that time but one very special depiction, Edmund Pettas Bridge, Selma (currently on view in the exhibition), was chosen as an image for a U.S. Postage stamp in 2005! Painter Bernice Sims' artwork was 1 of 10 illustrations chosen to depict memorable events that took place across the South during the Civil Rights Movement.
Painter Bernice Sims' postage stamp image courtesy of The Folk Art Society of America
So, what can we learn about buying Outsider art directly from the source? What is one of the main lessons the Olivers have learned over their 16 years of collecting Outsider art? “Always take your artwork with you right after you buy it,” Ted told us during his talk, “If you bought something from [painter] Richard Burnside and then left, and came back to get it, why, he might’ve sold it to somebody else while you were gone!” Perhaps we learned that Outsider artists aren’t so naïve after all.