Mary Tillman Smith
Mary Tillman was the third of thirteen children born to a sharecropping family in Copiah County, Mississippi. She was devoutly religious. She had a lifelong hearing impairment which made her speech difficult to understand. At an early age she found an outlet in drawing. Her younger sister, Elizabeth remembered, “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.”1
In her thirties, Tillman worked as a domestic servant in Hazlehurst and was briefly married to a sharecropper named John Smith. In the late 1970’s Mary Smith began to fill her roadside one acre yard with intensely bold, abstract figurative sculptures, as well as functional structures, which she carefully arranged. By the early 1980’s, this became one of the most widely recognized African-American “yard show” artistic environments in the South.
She composed abstract expressionistic paintings of varying subjects, including biblical gatherings, Jesus, the Christian Trinity, local people, family, animals and trees. She used only two to four colors per painting. Most are painted on corrugated tin hand cut with an axe, or on plywood. Many have prominent captions or titles integral to the composition.
In 1985, Smith had a stroke which left her writing impaired. She was in poor health and had mostly stopped working when I met her in 1992.
Mary Smith was born the same year as Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning. Although Smith was unable to begin to create a body of work until she was in her 70’s, she was likely creative all of her life. Her art has been shown internationally. It is in many museum collections, notably, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the American Folk Art Museum, New York.
1 William Arnett, “Mary T. Smith: Her Name is Someone,” Raw Vision, XXXI, Summer 2000, p. 25.
George Jacobs Self-Taught Art
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