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Based in Dallas, Texas, where he has lived and worked for most of his life, Murray Smither, 83, a former art dealer and longtime collector of American folk art and outsider art who has specialised in the creations of self-taught artists from his home state and the broader American South region, is now bringing a large portion of his art holdings to market.

Dealers Julie Webb and Bruce Lee Webb of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie, a small town roughly 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of central Dallas, have been working with Smither to divide paintings, sculptures, and other objects from his collection of hundreds of items into thematically cohesive groupings for presentation in “Thoughtful Collection,” an ongoing exhibition that is now in progress at their spacious venue. It will remain on view, with periodic rotations of displayed material, both at the gallery itself and online through the end of this year. 

As dealers and art collectors themselves, the Webbs have long been recognised in the United States for their discoveries and expertise in the outsider art field. The Webbs not only have known Smither for many years; over the decades, they told Raw Vision, they have also learned much from the older, experienced collector about the art history of their region as it has related to the emergence and development of local collectors’ and dealers’ activities focusing on the creations of self-taught artists.

Looking back over his long career, Smither recently told Raw Vision, “I enjoyed meeting self-taught artists, such as Frank Jones, Mildred Foster, or Floyd Clark. I liked these people, and they liked you liking their art. I wanted to start buying it — and I did.”

Smither was born and brought up in Hunstville, Texas, a city about 70 miles (112 kilometers) north of Houston. It is the home to Sam Houston State University (formerly Sam Houston State Teachers College, where Murray studied journalism) and the Texas State Penitentiary. That large prison houses the state’s execution chamber, the most active facility of its kind in the U.S. today. After finishing his undergraduate university studies in Huntsville, Smither moved to Dallas, where he worked for Texas Instruments (TI), the semiconductor-manufacturing company.

In Dallas, Smither’s interest in art blossomed. There, he took painting classes and eventually left TI to work in galleries, later establishing his own gallery in the early 1970s. 

Earlier, though, in the 1960s, at the prison in Hunstville, Smither judged an exhibition of art produced by its inmates and chose the Black, self-taught artist Frank Jones (1900-1969) as the winner of the contest. He became friendly with Jones, who made drawings with the stubs of blue-and-red accountants’ pencils on found scraps of paper. They portrayed what the incarcerated artist called “devils’ houses”— wiry-looking structures, shown in cross-section, featuring horned “haints”, or demonic spirits. 

Smither played a significant role in bringing Jones’s mysterious drawings to market, and in recent years, as their prices have risen, they have become highly prized by serious collectors of American outsider art.

Over the years, Smither also championed the work of the Rev. J. L. Hunter (1905-1999), Eddie Arning (1898-1993), and George W. White, Jr. (1903-1970), a Texas-born self-taught artist of African, Mexican, and Native American ancestry, who made paintings and mixed-media tableaux. In the 1980s, as his personal collection of art and objects made by self-taught artists, with a focus on those from Texas, expanded, Smither became an art appraiser and a consultant to corporate art collections. Through his contributions to exhibitions and advocacy on behalf of the artists whose creations had seized his attention, he played a key role in bringing to the public’s attention the unusual work of such artists as Jones, White, and many others.

Highlights of his personal collection, which is now being brought to market by the Webb Gallery, include biblical and local scenes by the Rev. Johnnie Swearingen (1909-1993), who is known as a “memory painter” of his native Texas; early portraits on paper by Ike Morgan (born 1958); painted-wood figurines by Hunter; and unusual paintings on paper or board by Valton Tyler (1944-2017), Lonnie Holley (born 1950), and Jimmie Lee Sudduth (1910-2007), along with rare works by Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) of New Orleans. 

Smither’s art holdings come to market at a time when emblematic works of historical significance and exemplary aesthetic quality by American outsider artists have become highly sought after by collectors and dealers alike.

Although he feels the time is now right to bring his collection to market, Smither did note, wistfully, “For me, all of these pieces are filled with memories.”

Edward M. Gómez
Senior Editor
Raw Vision