Lisa Stone remembers the first time she visited Jesse Howard, a self-taught artist who festooned his Missouri farm with hand-painted signs. "He called his place 'Sorehead Hill,'" says Stone, curator of the School of the Art Institute's Roger Brown Study Collection. "He was one hell of a sorehead. We'd be standing by the side of the road, talking, looking at signs and so forth, and a car would drive by. And if the car didn't stop he'd yell, 'No cooperation!' He'd scream it out loud. 'No cooperation!'"
Uncooperative others were a crucial theme for Howard, whose art is featured in a unique show Stone cocurated. They motivated the very first unconventional sign he painted, in retaliation when vandals destroyed a model plane he'd put on display. More than that, they triggered a 30-year outpouring of paint and rebuke--for betrayal, corruption, exploitation, failures of love. "I have been bawled out, bawled up, held up, held down, hung up, bulldozed, blackjacked, walked on, cheated, squeezed and mooched," he once wrote. "Stuck for war tax, excess profit tax, state dog and syntax: Liberty bonds, baby bonds, and the bonds of matrimoney: Red cross, green cross and Double cross." Or, more intimately, on a wooden plank: "What is a man to do? And what can a man do? When his family will not pull with him."
Howard actually did secure a measure of cooperation before he died in 1983, at the God's-joke age of 98. Artists and writers had started visiting the sign painter of Sorehead Hill by the late 50s. In 1968 he was featured in an Art in America cover story about folk artists; in 1970 he earned a chapter in Richard Rhodes's collection The Inland Ground. The Kansas City Art Institute bought around 100 of his works, some of which appeared in a 1974 exhibition, "Naives and Visionaries," at the Walker Art Center. The art-world car was stopping for him.
Roger Brown made two pilgrimages to Howard's farm, in 1971 and '72. A Chicagoan by way of Alabama, Brown could speak Howard's Bible-charged language and appreciate the old man's folk idioms. More to the point, he had a similar cranky streak--an Ezekiel-like urge to speak truth to power. "Brown had the same kind of impulse as Jesse Howard," says Stone. "If something pissed Brown off, it would be an outpouring. He was very unpopular for that reason. He'd do paintings that expressed things that weren't cool. Certainly weren't politically correct. And he didn't care. And he knew it." Some of Howard's signs found their way onto the walls of Brown's Halsted Street studio (now home to the Roger Brown Study Collection), some of his motifs into Brown's well-known imagist canvases. Both men loved the provocative clarity of the written word.
Stone teamed up with Raechell Smith of the Kansas City Art Institute to create "Now Read On," a show that investigates the Howard-Brown kinship. Currently running at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Betty Rymer Gallery, the exhibit comprises ten "tableaux," each of which combines one Brown painting with a selection of Howard signs and objects to explore a common theme. "UnAmerican," for instance, places Brown's ominous vision of the House Un-American Activities Committee alongside Howard's texts attacking the "thourly brain=warshed communist." "In God We Trust" surrounds Brown's beatific Arrangement in Blue and Gray, the Artist and His Friend Fishing with Howard's testimonies about God and nature.
Stone points out that this is the first exhibit to take a serious look at Howard's content, which isn't necessarily pretty. "There are some tough messages in this show," she says. But "it's genuine and poignant, and the anger in it is something that so many people experience and so few express." She adds that Brown articulated these messages too. "So I guess our main purpose is to invite people to think about the things these artists were grappling with, visually and with text." She includes her SAIC colleagues in that invitation. "I see how people are being taught to follow a certain train of thought, something that's cool and accepted," she says. "It's not totally pervasive, but it's there. Brown would not do that. He didn't shy away from saying what he thought."
Now Read On
When: Through Fri 11/18
Where: SAIC Betty Rymer Gallery, 280 S. Columbus
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Stone.