Bessie Harvey, East Tennessee Visionary Artist

Five Sorcerers

Bessie Harvey, Five Sorcerers, 1986. Clay.

I’ve spent about a quarter of a century studying and writing about the work of self-taught artists, especially focusing on the work of African American artists. So I was pleasantly surprised to find two examples of the work of Bessie Harvey on a recent visit to the Knoxville Museum of Art. All too frequently, self-taught artists like Harvey are excluded from such exhibitions as “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee”; their work tends to be segregated in shows specifically dealing with the self-taught genre. I applaud the KMA for including this important self-taught artist among her academically trained peers in celebrating the region’s rich artistic tradition.

Bessie Harvey (1929—1994) is considered among the top tier of 20th century American self-taught artists; her work has been shown in virtually every major exhibition of “folk” art in the past 25 or so years, is included in numerous museum collections, and in 1995 was selected for the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Harvey, born in Dallas, Georgia, moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 1940s, and then to nearby Alcoa, known chiefly for its aluminum smelting plant, where she created her entire artistic output.

bessie harvey

Bessie Harvey

There was little in Harvey’s early life to indicate any likelihood of future success. Born into abject poverty, she was the 7th of 13 children, her father died when she was a child, and her mother was an alcoholic. She later recalled, “There was nothing. In the morning, you’d just get up, go looking for whatever you could find, and if you had one meal that day, then you’d made progress.” Harvey’s formal education ended in the fourth grade, and she worked as a domestic in private homes for many years. She first married at the age of 14, and endured years of domestic violence. By the time she was 35, she was the mother of 11 children, struggling to survive with little but her religious faith to see her through.

Harvey was deeply spiritual and loved nature. Based on visions that she believed were inspired by God, she began creating sculptures in 1972. She first displayed her art at the Blount County Memorial Hospital, where she was a member of the housekeeping staff, in 1977. Although she also worked in clay, Harvey is best known for her mixed media sculptures in which she combined embellished found natural forms with manmade objects.

poison of the lying tongues

Bessie Harvey, The Poison of the Lying Tongues, 1987. Found wood, cowrie shells, paint.

Harvey’s work belongs to a widespread African American visionary tradition that has been described as a unique “collaboration between the artist, God, and nature.” The ability to see anthropomorphic forms in roots, limbs, and driftwood—materials held sacred by African artists for their great spiritual powers—is not uncommon among African American visionary artists, and points to the survival of cultural Africanisms on this side of the Atlantic. Harvey is one of many African American artists who echo the belief that their role is to give physical form to spiritual presences already inherent within the materials. The artist’s role is to “bring out” these presences, usually by adding elements that might include shells, hair, cloth, paint, and other found or improvised items. The resulting forms are raw, powerful, and charged with energy.
Faces of Africa

Bessie Harvey, Faces of Africa II, 1994. Painted wood, wood putty, glitter and found objects.

Celebrated by her community and lauded by her state as one of its leading artists, Harvey received the Governor’s Award, Tennessee’s highest artistic honor, in the year of her death, 1994; the street in Alcoa where she lived has been renamed Bessie Harvey Avenue. Like many of her fellow self-taught artists, Bessie Harvey’s compelling story is one of perseverance and personal triumph against all odds, in which an artistic individual is inspired to create objects of great beauty and power amidst the most formidable circumstances.

—Lynne Adele

Anna Catherine Wiley, American Impressionist

Untitled, c. 1913, oil on canvas

One of the many pleasures of moving to an entirely new part of the country is learning about the history and culture of the region. This past weekend we visited the Knoxville Museum of Art. Among the highlights in the Museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee,” are several Impressionist paintings by the greatly undersung artist, Anna Catherine Wiley.

Self-portrait, c. 1910s

Wiley (1879—1958), was born into a wealthy and intellectual family at Coal Creek (now Lake City), Tennessee, where her father owned and operated two coal mines. She grew up in Knoxville, studied at the University of Tennessee from 1895—1897, attended the Art Students League in New York from 1903—1905, and spent six months studying with William Merritt Chase before returning to Knoxville in 1905, where she taught art at the University of Tennessee from 1905—1918. She continued her art instruction under the Knoxville painter, Lloyd Branson, became an influential member of the local art community, and organized a successful exhibition for the Appalachian Exposition of 1910. She spent several summers painting in Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island.
Pencil study of a collie, c. 1895—97

Pencil study of a collie, c. 1895—97

Wiley is best known for her masterful brushwork and exuberant play of natural light in her Impressionist paintings. Typical subject matter included women and children of the upper class in quiet scenes, often painted out of doors where Wiley took maximum advantage of natural, dappled light. She won numerous regional awards, and her work was shown at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but she did not achieve the level of national acclaim she desired during her lifetime. Her work, The Lily Pond, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but most of her work remains in regional museums and private collections.

Lady with Parasol, c. 1915, oil on canvas

Wiley never married and was close to both her parents. It has been suggested that she suffered from bipolar disorder. The deaths of her father in 1919, her mentor (and possible lover) Lloyd Branson in 1925, and her mother in 1926, were also factors that probably contributed to a serious emotional decline that culminated in a mental breakdown in 1926. Sadly, her siblings committed her to an institution in Philadelphia, where she spent the remaining 32 years of her life. She had no access to art supplies and never painted again. When she died in 1958, her body was returned to Knoxville. Anna Catherine Wiley is buried in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery, not far from her childhood home and the art museum that now features several examples of her lustrous and appealing work.

—Lynne Adele

Millenium Manor

Millenium Manor

Millenium Manor

Steve and I are extremely fond of vernacular visionary architecture and folk-art environments. We’ve been known to take some fairly extreme detours to visit these fascinating places, and we’ve experienced the delight of stumbling across others unexpectedly in our travels.

The artists who create these site-specific constructions are typically self-taught, eccentric individuals who are driven to follow their personal visions, and labor extensively and steadfastly over long periods of time to create a single great work of monumental scale. Whether created as private sanctuaries for solitary reflection or to make public statements for intended audiences, these works often give expression to powerful underlying philosophical, religious, or political views. Created with improvised construction methods and readily available materials, they are often inherently fragile. They are forced to withstand weather extremes, often face misunderstanding and ridicule from unsympathetic neighbors, and are vulnerable to acts of vandalism. Upkeep can be costly, time consuming, and challenging, and in all too many cases, they are destroyed following the artist’s death.

We were intrigued to learn about a structure in nearby Alcoa, Tennessee, known locally as the Old Stone House or Millennium Manor, so naturally, we decided to check it out.

W A Nicholson

W. A. Nicholson

William Andrew Nicholson, a mason and carpenter from Pickens County, Georgia, constructed the Old Stone House along with his wife, Fair, the mother of his ten children. Nicholson had come to Alcoa in 1937 during a worker’s strike at the aluminum smelting plant, as a “replacement for striking workers”—more commonly referred to as “scab labor.” (By the time the strike was over, 28 people had been wounded and 2 killed in a violent clash between striking workers and the company’s police force, and the National Guard was called in to restore order.) Following the strike Nicholson stayed on at Alcoa, and the following year he purchased a lot overlooking the plant and began building the house. He was 61 years old when he began his great project.

Nicholson’s goal was to build the house to last. Specifically, he wanted it to survive Armageddon and a thousand years beyond. He took a literalist view of the Bible, and was inspired by Revelations 20:6, “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” Nicholson had somehow calculated that the Apocalypse would take place in 1959; when that year came and went uneventfully, he revised his calculation to 1969. He believed that he would be one of 144,000 righteous people to survive and live for a thousand years.

To that end, Nicholson built the house with materials that would not corrode or decay—no nails or wood were used with the exception of window and door frames. The house is constructed primarily of local granite and Tennessee pink marble quarried at nearby Friendsville, and more than 4,000 bags of cement. There are 14 rooms and a 2-car underground garage, for a total of about 3,000 square feet under a 3-foot thick roof said to weigh more than 400 tons. The walls vary from 19 inches to 25 inches thick, and the floor is more than 4 feet thick. The entire lot is enclosed within a rock wall.

Millenium Manor 2

Working without formal plans, Nicholson used the stone arch technology developed by the ancient Romans some two thousand years ago. Nicholson first created wood forms. Upstairs, to make smoother interior walls, he placed rubber tarps over the wood. After stacking the stone on the forms, he set the center keystone to keep the rocks steady. He poured cement over the stones to fill cracks and hold the rocks in place, and then removed the wood form and tarp.

William and Fair hauled all the rock themselves, some weighing up to 300 pounds each, on their flatbed truck. Fair mixed the cement for the mortar. They toiled together on their project over a period of 9 years, working from 6 to 8 hours per day after William had put in a full shift at the plant.

Millenium Manor Interior

Fair died in 1950, and the grieving William followed her in 1965, four years before the predicted Millennium. The house stood abandoned for a number of years, was briefly used as an Odd Fellows lodge, and was run as a Halloween haunted house by the local Jaycees before falling into disrepair. It became a drinking place for local teenagers, was ravaged by vandalism, used as a trash dump, and encased in a jungle of vines until, facing demolition, it was rescued in 1995 by its current owner, Knoxville fire captain and paramedic, Dean Fontaine. He has been working for 17 years to restore the house. He took time out to give us an impromptu tour of his home yesterday afternoon.

Of course, no architectural oddity would be complete without tales of hauntings, and it is said that you can still see candlelight through the windows and hear Mr. Nicholson working on the house at all hours.

—Lynne Adele

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Punkin and Melinda: A Love Story

We in The Victor Mourning always appreciate a good tale of eternal love. Whether it be Adam & Eve, Johnny & June, or Lux & Ivy, nothing warms the heart more than a story about two people who seem made for each other finding one another against all odds—especially when those two people are relatively unique sorts.

Recently in our reading we came across the story of John Wayne “Punkin” Brown of Parottsville, Tennessee. Punkin was a devout fellow. He believed in following the “five signs” as outlined in Mark 16:17-18: casting out devils, speaking in tongues, laying hands on the sick, drinking poison (usually strychnine or lye), and taking up serpents. Punkin was well known amongst the followers of the five signs, and he preached at little churches all over the southeast.

Punkin Brown

Punkin Brown

Sometime around 1981, when Punkin was in his late teens, he attended a “homecoming” for serpent handlers at a church in Kingston, Georgia. During the service, he spotted 14 year-old Melinda Duvall in the crowd. His brother Mark tells us, “Punkin had seen her down there handling big rattlesnakes, speaking in tongues, and shouting. He seen all that and that just hooked him right there. He found a woman who liked to do the things that he liked to do.” After Punkin got back home to Parrotsville, he told his brother, “I’ve met me a tongues-talking, serpent-handling Holiness woman and I’m going to marry her!” Punkin and Melinda were married a year later.

Like all the best stories of true love, this one lasted till the very end. On August 6, 1995, during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, Melinda was bitten by a black timber rattler she was handling. Within two days, the 28 year-old mother of five was dead.

Three years later on October 3, 1998, Punkin Brown was preaching a service at the Rock House Holiness Church of God in rural Jackson County, Alabama. During his sermon he was bitten by a yellow timber rattler. Punkin looked at the bite and said, “God don’t ever change. It’s gonna be all right.” Soon after, he uttered what may have been his last words, “No matter what comes, God’s still God.” He was dead within minutes.

Rock House Holiness Church of God

Rock House Holiness Church of God

Punkin and Melinda died as they lived. And most all the folks who knew them are certain that they’re together again, no longer following the five signs. For as all good Holiness people know, there are no serpents in heaven.

—Stephen Canner

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

—William Shakespeare