‘We Are Made of Stories’: Artists who transcend the self-taught label


It sounds like the plot of a twee patriotic movie: A Savannah, Ga., barber spends his days cutting hair and his nights carving busts of U.S. presidents. But Ulysses Davis — who died in 1990 after woodworking his way through every president from George Washington to George H.W. Bush — didn’t do it for the propaganda.

On view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition “We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection,” Davis’s carvings of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have an unmistakable aesthetic of African masks: elongated heads, narrow noses, almond-shaped eyes. Davis, an African American who took great pride in his heritage, seems to call on others to do the same here. By recasting the most recognizable American leaders so that their faces are explicitly indebted to Africa, he seems to ask us to recognize how much of our nation is, too.

Whether Davis intended to critique the conventions of presidential iconography is hard to say. During his lifetime, he remained relatively unknown but fiercely devoted to his art. “They’re part of me,” he once said of his sculptures, which he refused to sell. “They’re part of my treasure. If I sold these, I’d really be poor.”

That seems to be the ethos of several artists in this show, which features deeply personal art. Looking at much of the work — devotional pottery by the deeply religious Howard Finster; Nellie Mae Rowe’s photographic self-portraits, embellished with colorful crayon work; Bill Traylor’s painted memories of farm life (described by the museum as the earliest and most expansive known body of images by a person born into slavery) — you get the strange sense that you’re sneaking a glimpse at someone’s diary. And not always in good way.

For this sort of art, the traditional museum context, which insists on categorization, feels surprisingly suffocating. In one gallery, fiber sculptures by Judith Scott, a woman with Down syndrome who made strides for neurodivergent artists, are positioned across from work by Thornton Dial Sr., a Jim Crow-era artist, whose allegorical drawings wrestle with perceptions of Black people. Lumping such profound, disparate works into one clunky narrative of oppressed, undervalued artists flattens both of them.

At such moments, you feel as if the walls around you are closing in. You have the nagging sense that you should somehow set these artworks free. It’s not the exhibition — which is well-meaning — that is to blame for this reaction, but mainstream art history, which necessitates this show of misfits by leaving so many artists out.

While “We Are Made of Stories” has been in development for years, it is framed as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, which called for cultural institutions to become more inclusive. (Nearly half of the artists in the show are Black.) But the exhibition’s efforts could be hampered by the fact that it is organized around a fraught genre: one that is built on — and that some might say perpetuates — stigma.

“Self taught” is just another euphemism. Over the years, these artists have had many labels: the inaccurate “folk,” the condescending “primitive,” the coolly dismissive “outsider” and the unnecessarily fawning “visionary.” The plain truth is that they are artists who — because they were often poor, Black, mentally ill, disabled or otherwise marginalized — do not conform to the expectations of the often White, often male guardians of art history’s ivory tower.

As these artists gained more recognition in the 20th century, they were simultaneously admired and belittled, elevated and ghettoized. Often they were treated as living vestiges of the past and expected to create happy-go-lucky, folksy art — devoid of any trace of the real-world difficulties they faced. When Nashville sculptor William Edmondson became the first African American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, the museum patronizingly praised his geometric, limestone statues as some kind of modernist miracle, plucked from the ether.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum seeks to issue a corrective by adding context to the stories of these artists. With Edmondson’s art, they’ve highlighted his background as a tombstone-maker and how he honored local heroes, like teachers, in his art.

Beside a dizzying painting of a steep vertical roadway by Martín Ramírez, the wall text notes that after Ramírez came to America from Mexico, he was institutionalized for decades. It goes on to suggest that this work might represent his own traumatic northbound journey, from which there was no return.

Still, it’s hard not to look at Ramírez’s work and think of Wayne Thiebaud’s well-known vertical landscapes, some of which hang in the museum’s permanent collection upstairs.

This show will force you to acknowledge such troubling disparities. Joan Miró defined himself by creating childlike, playful paintings, but when Nellie Mae Rowe embraced playfulness, her work was described as crude and primitive. Alexander Calder was hailed for his inventive wire sculptures, while wire creations in this show are attributed to the anonymous “Philadelphia Wireman,” whose identity been lost to history.

Walking through this exhibition, you can sense art history’s elitist specter looming. The show wouldn’t exist without it. But for the art’s sake — don’t let it scare you away.

We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection

Smithsonian American Art Museum. Eighth and G streets NW. americanart.si.edu.

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