First published: Winter 2001
It has been seven years since Bessie Harvey’s untimely death, time now for her work to permanently re-enter our consciousness after an appropriate period of mourning and remembrance. This accomplished root sculptor has indeed received much-deserved if intermittent posthumous recognition – two very different events bear mentioning, as they illuminate the marginalizing critical approaches typically taken to address the work of self-taught visionaries.
In 1995 Harvey was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York, and in 1997 she was the subject of a major retrospective entitled ‘Awakening the Spirit: Art by Bessie Harvey,’ at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Knoxville, Tennessee. In the former event she was chosen to fill the exhibition’s diversity quota, serving as the consummate outsider, a token minority three times over, an untrained, African-American woman, adrift in a mainstream artworld which continues to favor the work of art-educated white men. In the latter she was dramatically eulogized and canonized as a Southern folk saint.
In both cases, her work was delimited by the preconceived notion of the self-taught visionary as someone radically Other, creating work removed from our own experience by virtue of the mystery surrounding the creative process that generated it. Yet now – with the current, long-overdue collective initiative, marked by events such as the publication of the seminal Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume 1 (2000), to recognize the work of self-taught visionaries not as an hermetically sealed, New-Age ‘X-File,’ born of cosmic mystery, compulsion, or cultural isolation, but rather as a vital part of a vernacular cultural matrix that is philosophically and visually rich – her work stands to receive the balanced critical attention it deserves, which in turn will allow for a recognition of its urgent pertinence to our culture at large at the start of the new millennium.