“We Are Made of Stories”: self-taught artists who transcend labels


It sounds like the plot of a little patriotic movie: a barber in Savannah, Georgia, spends his days cutting hair and his nights sculpting busts of American presidents. But Ulysses Davis – who died in 1990 after going through every president from George Washington to George HW Bush – didn’t do it for propaganda.

Featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection,” Davis’ sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington feature an unmistakable aesthetic of African masks: elongated heads , narrow nose, almond -shaped eyes. Davis, an African American very proud of his heritage, seems to be calling on others to do the same here. By recasting America’s most recognizable leaders so that their faces are explicitly beholden to Africa, it seems to be asking us to recognize how important our nation is too.

It is difficult to say whether Davis intended to criticize the conventions of presidential iconography. During his lifetime, he remained relatively unknown but fiercely devoted to his art. “They are part of me,” he once said of his sculptures, which he refused to sell. “They are part of my treasure. If I sold them, I would be really poor.

This seems to be the philosophy of several artists in this exhibition, which presents deeply personal art. Looking at much of the work – the devotional pottery of the deeply religious Howard Finster; the photographic self-portraits of Nellie Mae Rowe, embellished with colored pencils; Bill Traylor’s painted mementos of farm life (described by the museum as the oldest and largest known body of imagery of anyone born into slavery) – you get the strange feeling you’re peeking glance at someone’s diary. And not still on track.

For this type of art, the traditional museum context, which insists on categorization, seems surprisingly stifling. In a gallery, fiber sculptures by Judith Scott, a woman with Down syndrome who made strides for neurodivergent artists, are positioned opposite the work of Thornton Dial Sr., a Jim Crow-era artist, whose allegorical designs struggle with perceptions of black people. Packing such deep and disparate works into a clumsy tale of downtrodden and undervalued artists flattens them both.

At such times, you feel like the walls around you are closing in. You have a nagging feeling that you should somehow release these works. It is not the exhibition – which is well-intentioned – that is to blame for this reaction, but the history of mainstream art, which necessitates this spectacle of misfits by excluding so many artists.

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

“Self-taught” is just another understatement. Over the years, these artists have had many labels: the inaccurate ‘folk’, the condescending ‘primitive’, the coldly dismissive ‘outsider’ and the unnecessarily flattering ‘visionary’. The plain truth is that these 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 and often male guardians of the ivory tower of the ‘the history of art.

As these artists gained recognition in the 20th century, they were both admired and belittled, uplifted and ghettoized. Often they were treated as living relics of the past and expected to create carefree folk art devoid of any trace of the real-world hardships they faced. When Nashville sculptor William Edmondson became the first African American to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, the museum condescendingly hailed his geometric limestone statues as some sort of modernist miracle, snatched from the ‘ether.

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

Alongside a dizzying painting of a steep vertical causeway by Martín Ramírez, the wall text notes that after Ramírez arrived in America from Mexico, he was institutionalized for decades. He goes on to suggest that this work might represent his own traumatic journey north, from which there was no return.

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

This show will force you to recognize these troubling disparities. Joan Miró defined herself by creating childish and playful paintings, but when Nellie Mae Rowe embraced play, her work was described as raw and primitive. Alexander Calder has been hailed for his inventive wire sculptures, while the wire creations in this exhibit are attributed to the anonymous “Philadelphia Wireman”, whose identity has been lost to history.

As you walk through this exhibition, you can feel the elitist specter of art history dawning. The show wouldn’t exist without her. But for the love of the art, don’t let that scare you.

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

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