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Mary T. Smith

American, 20th century.
Born 1904, Copiah County, Mississippi; died 1995, Hazlehurst, Mississippi.


Mary Tillman Smith was born in   1904 in Copiah County, southern Mississippi, and grew up in the town of Martinville, the third of thirteen children. From an early age Smith had a serious hearing impairment that made it difficult for others to understand her speech. School was a strain on her, but she was able to get to the fifth grade, a significant accomplishment considering her near deafness. Her siblings recognized that their sister possessed exceptional intelligence, but others assumed she was “off,” and she was often excluded from other children’s activities. She found an outlet in drawing, and according to Elizabeth, “When the rest of us were doing hopscotch, Mary would get on the ground somewhere else and draw pictures in the dirt and write funny things by the pictures.”

Smith left home in her teens and entered into a brief marriage with a man named Gus Williams. The marriage lasted two months; after she caught him lying to her, she left. She then went to work for a white family in Wesson, a few miles from Martinville. She lived in their house and washed, cooked, and cleaned for them. After a few years there, she met and married John Smith, a sharecropper, but that marriage also ended abruptly. Mary Smith, in her thirties, then moved to Hazlehurst, the largest town in the immediate area, to figure things out.

In Hazlehurst, Smith worked as a domestic servant and gave birth to her only child, Sheridan L. “Jay Bird” Major, in 1941. Though she did not marry the father, be built her a house where she lived and raised their son. That house–a neat wood bungalow on a one-acre lot, sitting beside the main road through Hazlehurst–gave Mary T. Smith a new beginning. Near the house was a garbage dump, piled with discarded corrugated tin that was free for the taking. Smith dragged pieces of the tin home to use for her fences and paintings and gradually the yard began to fill with art. She constructed a outbuildings, doghouses, storage huts, tables, benches, and a studio where she worked and displayed her paintings. The buildings themselves were works of art, wood and tin sculptures usually painted with patterns and designs.

Smith’s love for Jesus was present throughout her yard, and she painted numerous portraits of him and conceived a variety of ways to depict the Christian Trinity. Religious iconography appeared in abstracted forms all along her fence.  She was fascinated by patterns and designs, which became, for her, conveyors of information. She could present an idea to the world by writing a slogan on a painting or with a script-like constellation of tin or wood fragments. Painted and written scripts and slogans were also an integral part of the yard. Though Smith was capable of legible printing and cursive writing, she wrote on many of her paintings with inscriptions that were seemingly unintelligible. This may have been an attempt to play into the town’s perception of her as ignorant or crazy, thereby affording her a degree of privacy and, hence, security. The inscriptions, especially those on religious paintings, seem to belong to a purposeful and meaningful system, and Smith probably understood thoroughly her invented words. In other cases her “writing” seems simply an improvisational almost formalist use of letters and script as elements of design, a technique employed for centuries by African American quilters, for example.In the space of a billboard, newspaper ad, or television commercial, an advertiser presents a picture and a terse line of copy. Smith adopted those means: a bold, easy-to-recognize image teamed with, if needed, a pithy slogan, a name, or some other relevant declaration.

Smith passed away in 1995, at the age of ninety-one. Despite all odds, a poor, black, uneducated, hearing-impaired daughter of a sharecropper had become a major artist exhibited and collected throughout the United States and included in dozens of exhibitions and publications.

- Phillip March Jones


Selected Exhibitions

2013, Mary T. Smith: Mississippi Shouting, Galerie Christian Berst, Paris

2000, Treasures To Go, traveling exhibition, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

1988, Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in Our Time, High Museum of Art, Atlanta

1987, Baking in the Sun: Visionary Images from the South, Old Capital Museum, Jackson

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
Collection abcd, Paris
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans
Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.

Selected Bibliography

Arnett, Paul, and William S. Arnett, eds., Souls Grown Deep: African American Art of the South, Volume I & II, Tinwood, Atlanta, 2001.

Arnett, William S., "Mary T. Smith: Her Name is Someone," Raw Vision, No. 31, Summer 2000.

Kogan, Lee, "Mary Tillman Smith 1904-1995," Folk Art, 20 No. 4, Winter 1995/1966.

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