Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South

By Roach, Susan; Jones, Peter | Western Folklore, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South


Roach, Susan, Jones, Peter, Western Folklore


Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South. Edited by Carol Crown. (Memphis: Art Museum of the University of Memphis, in association with the University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2004. Pp. 215, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, bibliography, index. $65.00 cloth, $30.00 paper)

As co-reviewers-¢ folklorist from a rural Southern evangelical Protestant background and an artist/art historian from a secular, cosmopolitan northeastern background-we found Coming Home to be both useful and informative. Created to accompany an exhibition of 122 artworks on religious themes by 73 artists, the book presents essays by six well-credentialed authors-Paul Harvey, Erika Doss, Hal Fulmer, Babatunde Lawal, Charles Reagan Wilson, and N. J. Girardot, as well as an excellent introduction by Crown and a foreword by Lee Kogan, a brief introduction by Leslie Luebbers and short essays by Cheryl Rivers. Organizing a work of this scope is an enormous task, which editor-contributor Carol Crown has handled admirably. We were aware of the project early on, having introduced Crown to Sarah Albritton, an artist featured in the exhibition and book, and having furnished materials on Albritton from an earlier work on which we collaborated (Roach 1998).

Viewing the same material through the authors' differing perspectives from backgrounds in history, religion, American Studies and points of emphasis yields fresh insights. The styles range from the straightforward writing of Harvey, who provides a guide to the varieties of Southern Christianity, to the ecstatic imagery of Girardot, who writes of the cultural need for shamans like Howard Finster. Wilson extends the discussion to literature and music, invoking Faulkner, Hurston, and O'Connor, while Erika Doss connects the spiritual content of mainstream art to that of self-taught art in a welcome change from the usual Modernist focus on formalist qualities. Fulmer's historical perspective yields a fascinating insight into contrasting Southern views of Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Lawal's essay on African retentions is richly detailed.

Collectors and admirers of self-taught art, as well as scholars of religion and the South, will appreciate this depiction of evangelical Protestantism as an artistic determinant. The work gives an outline for potential collectors to use in evaluating content as well. In connecting the subjects of the artworks to a broader tradition, the book illuminates works that to an uninformed viewer might look idiosyncratic but may actually reflect mainstream evangelical Protestant beliefs. Howard Finster's art, for example, is the richer when we are able to view Finster as an evangelical minister following the teachings of his faith. The book's greatest strength is its contextualization of a variety of works in different periods in different styles by both African American and Euro-American artists. Each essay has copious endnotes. The generous bibliography at the end is divided into the categories Art, Religion, and Southern Culture.

Overall, the book is very handsome, with beautiful color plates, although references to the plates in the essays are minimal. The book is best read with energy and with both hands to flip ahead to referenced plates and get back to the text. …

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