Mary Tillman Smith's Bold Lines

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Mary T. Smith (Image: William Arnett, 1987)

Mary T. Smith, 1980, Paint on wood door, Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Mary T. Smith (Image: William Arnett)

Mary T. Smith was always an artist. Born the third of thirteen children to a sharecropper in Copiah County Mississippi in 1904, she started her life doing farmwork with her siblings. Her early life, according to her sister Elizabeth, began with hours of backbreaking work: “We helped our father on the farm. We struggled on the land. We were raising cabbages, tomatoes, beans, stuff like that. We wrapped vegetables, packed them in boxes, shipped them. The family was working sharecropping, but our father bought his own place later on.”

This wasn’t the only struggle in life for Mary, however. She had also been born with a hearing disability. This also had the side effect of making it hard to understand her speech, which made schooling extremely difficult for her. She was often ostracised and neglected by her peers at the time because of this as well. This did feed into her artwork, with her sister Elizabeth saying: “When the rest of us were doing hopscotch, Mary would get on the ground somewhere else and draw pictures in the dirt and write funny things by the pictures.”

Smith was married twice, once in her teens to a man called Gus Williams, who was caught deceiving her and she left him after two months. Years later she met a man called John Smith, who like her father in her childhood was a sharecropper. This marriage didn’t last either, ending when Mary, who had closely recorded her husband's labor, brought up that they had been underpaid for a year end settlement to his boss. John Smith's boss then demanded that he get rid of her. Her belongings were then packed up and she was moved to Hazelhurst. John Smith was given a new wife.

Mary and John had been paid $17, and had been owed $1,154.

Mary T. Smith in her yard painting (Image: William Arnett)

In 1941, she gave birth to her only son Sherridan L. “Jay Bird” Major, and although she didn’t marry his father, he built a house for her on a one acre lot. It was here that Mary T. Smith started her works.

Smith had access to corrugated tin and plywood from a nearby dump, bits of which she would regularly take and divide into smaller parts to create her paintings. She painted a wide variety of subjects, ranging from self portraits and paintings of her neighbors to her animals and Jesus Christ.

The paintings of Mary T. Smith are truly amazing, both primitive and modern, deeply complicated and simple all at once. Her work is characterized by her bold lines and choice of color, as well as her abstract representations of her figures. The motion shown in her paintings is also incredible, her figures often displayed with arms raised ecstatically. Her work sometimes incorporated texts, some of which were cryptic and personal in meaning.

My Mind Has to Do it, 1986 Paint and marker on wood 31.5 x 32 inches; Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio; Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation; Description: Smith created special spaces for her pet dogs and cats and embellished their areas with patterning similar to that found on her religious paintings, as if to say, Lord, protect these animals.

Scarecrow in Mary T. Smith's yard; Photo: Tom Rankin, 1985

In the late 1970’s Smith gained notoriety in the Folk Art world, with most Folk Art shows featuring at least one Mary T. Smith piece, with so many buyers that Smith could not keep up with the demand.

Unfortunately, things did not get much better for Mary Smith, who in 1985 suffered a stroke, limiting her painting process to “only” two or three paintings a day. In 1991 she stopped painting altogether. After she had stopped painting, her income dried up. Mary Tillman Smith died in 1995 at the age of 91, months after her burial insurance had been cut. The funeral home her body ended up in threatened her family to dump her body in a paupers grave. They managed to gather some money together but unfortunately Mary Tillman Smith was buried, as William Arnett puts it: “The family found a distant friend to pay for an honorable casket and burial. The funeral home pocketed the money and buried her unceremoniously in a cheap pine box.”

The life of Mary Tillman Smith was a long one, filled with hardships, but there was light. In a broad way, her work has spread throughout the world. The boldness of her artwork as well as the ubiquity of it has brought her work into the galleries of Metropolitan Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to name a few. But on a personal level she was known to be very humble, friendly and willing to share her wisdom with outsiders. According to Tom Rankin:A visitor to Mary T. Smith's yard might have heard her personal motto which she had carefully inscribed above her dog pen: ‘One face is all right, two face won't do.’

In researching Mary Tillman Smith, I must admit that I have fallen in love with her story and her work. She died one year after I was born, and I feel sad that I will never get to meet her myself, but instead just experience her vicariously through stories and articles and through her art. What I am deeply grateful for, however, is that I was born to a family who appreciates art, and more than that, appreciated and cultivated a love for Art Brut, Outsider Art, and Folk Art; otherwise I may never have heard of Mary Tillman Smith. I take great pleasure in the fact that I can use this platform to tell others about this incredible artist. We are lucky to even have a piece of hers ourselves to warm our hearts to.

If you would like to know more about Mary T. Smith, I HIGHLY recommend reading the article “Her Name is Someone” by Willam Arnett:

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