From a pre-Civil War trailblazer to a group of self-taught artists that have helped define contemporary vernacular art, the Gibbes Museum of Art’s latest exhibitions explore the impact of black artists in America. In the Main Gallery, The Creative Spirit includes 34 pieces created by self-taught, mostly African-American artists of the rural South. In the Rotunda galleries, In Search of Julien Hudson features portraits painted by one of the first known working artists of African descent in the U.S., as well as those who influenced him.
The season’s major exhibit is The Creative Spirit, which comes from the Gadsden Arts Center in Quincy, Fla. The gallery specializes in vernacular — otherwise known as folk or outsider — art. When the Gadsden reached out to the Gibbes about their traveling exhibit, Curator of Exhibitions Pam Wall jumped at the opportunity.
“One of the great things about vernacular art is that it’s sort of stripped down, stripped of pretense,” Wall says. “It’s something that we’ve found that children really respond to as well.”
Thornton Dial Sr., an Alabama-based folk artist born in 1928, is featured in the exhibition. Although he had been creating art for years, he wasn’t discovered until the 1980s by collector Bill Arnett. Arnett became a champion of his work, helping to put Dial and other Southern artists like him on the radar of the wider art world. After showing at the American Folk Art Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whitney Biennial, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and many other venues, Dial is now recognized as one of the most significant artists in the genre.
“There are really a lot of interesting stories, because many of these artists are motivated by very personal things,” Wall says. “A number of them had tragedies that occurred in their lives that sparked this interest in creating and having an outlet.”
One example is sculptor Lonnie Holley, who grew up in a large, impoverished family. When his nieces were killed in a house fire, his family couldn’t afford gravestones, so he carved them himself out of discarded sandstone. In the process, he discovered the emotional release afforded by creating art, and he’s been sculpting and painting ever since. Holley’s works, and many others in the exhibition, will include extensive label copy to provide viewers with a deeper understanding of the works.
Wall says The Creative Spirit provides an interesting contrast to Julien Hudson’s exhibit in the Rotunda.
“Julien Hudson is an artist of African-American descent who was working in New Orleans in the early 19th century, but he was academically trained and was professionally painting,” Wall says. “So I think it will be interesting to look at the differences between his training and his approach versus the artists in the Creative Spirit exhibition.”
As the exhibit’s title — In Search of Julien Hudson — suggests, it’s taken quite an effort to put together. Funded in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibit was co-organized by the Worcester Art Museum and the Historic New Orleans Collection. Initial research was funded by a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. Sara Arnold, curator of collections at the Gibbes, says that one reason Hudson’s work has been difficult to collect is because of his background, and, more specifically, his race.
“I think it’s an intriguing story of a lost artist that is now being rediscovered,” Arnold says. “This is a project that’s been ongoing, tracking down his works and what goes into it. In Search of Julien Hudson is an appealing feature because it shows how researchers and art historians are able to track down these works that have been lost over time.”
Hudson was born in 1811 in New Orleans to a property-owning free woman of color and an English merchant, ironmonger, and ship chandler. He started painting at a young age, training early on with itinerant miniaturist Antonio Meucci. Later, he traveled to Paris, where he worked with Alexandre Abel de Pujol. He died at the age of 33.
The Gibbes exhibition only includes five works that were definitely painted by Hudson. The rest of the 35 pieces are by artists that Hudson studied with or other artists who worked in New Orleans during the same time period.
“You can kind of see the connections and ties between artists that are working in many of the port cities,” Arnold says. “Charleston and New Orleans sort of mirror each other in many ways, particularly in that time period. It plays well to that point.”