Smith, Mary Tillman – African-American Artist

Mary Tillman Smith (American, 1905 to 1995)

Mary T. Smith was born Mary Tillman, the daughter of a sharecropper. School was a strain, despite her intelligence, as her hearing was impaired. She worked for most of her life as a domestic laborer. In 1941, the father of her only child built a home for her in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. It was near a garbage dump piled with discarded corrugated tin that was free for the taking and Smith dragged home piece after piece of it, splitting off strips with an ax. Gradually Smith’s yard began to fill with art. She constructed a series of outbuildings cum wood and tin sculptures, usually painted with the animated patterns and designs that make up her private language of symbols: the circle within a circle, sunbursts, vertical or horizontal strips, dot patterns and words that are not words at all. She also created bold, colorful, and expressive paintings, usually using house paint on wood or tin, often of highly stylized figures in strong colors. Smith’s art was championed broadly by the curator and collector William Arnett. By the time she died at the age of ninety-one, she had become a major outsider artist exhibited and collected throughout the world. Her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; de Young Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; among many other institutions.

Information courtesy of Rago Arts, October 2019.

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