In the middle of the last century, where Jesse Howard lived in Fulton, Mo., it wasn’t unusual to see hand-painted signs on country roads advertising a traveling fair or a farm sale.
Jesse Howard’s signs offered Bible verses. They proclaimed his anger at his neighbors and the government, his disappointments with the world around him. His canvas was most often a wooden plank or some scrap metal salvaged from dilapidated outbuildings, or any piece of farm equipment with a flat surface big enough to whitewash with house paint and cover with carefully lettered, all-caps screeds.
The signs filled Howard’s twenty-acre compound in Fulton. He called it “Sorehead Hill.”
Museum curators call it an “art environment.”
The Smithsonian American Art Museum now owns one of Howard's pieces; his work is also in collections at the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. Most of it, however, is owned by the Kansas City Art Institute, which has just loaned dozens of Howard’s pieces to the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis for the first comprehensive survey of Jesse Howard’s work.
“We think of art environments as personal spaces that are built or constructed by an individual who, for whatever reason, decides to reshape his or her corner of the world,” says Leslie Umberger, the Smithsonian's curator of folk and self-taught art.
Howard was one of three artists who started building these environments in the 1940s and ‘50s. Fred Smith in Wisconsin and Sam Rodia in California were the others. Before long, more well-known artists such as Roger Brown and Jasper Johns started paying attention.
“And it is completely different from what’s happening in the staid halls of mainstream art," Umberger says. "It makes a big difference because people start to really equate this radicalism with having a strong voice, a strong opinion, being truly original, for standing up for what you believe in and fighting for it.”
And Howard had to fight. Some of his neighbors tore down his signs and vandalized his property.
“In 1952 his neighbors applied to have him committed to an asylum, and in ‘54 Jesse went to Washington to seek reparation. So it was a very fraught existence,” says Jeffrey Uslip, chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Howard got no help from Washington, but he managed to avoid the asylum. Having spent his early years as a migrant worker, Howard settled down to make his art, while his wife took in ironing to scrape together a living. Then, in the late 1960s, Art in America ran a story about him. Artists started making pilgrimages to Fulton, and faculty at the Kansas City Art Institute invited him to be a visiting artist.
"There are photographs of a birthday party that was hosted for Jesse Howard, and there was a cake made that looked like one of his signs that was hand-lettered," says Raechell Smith, director and curator at the H&R Block Artspace. "Jesse was at the center of a large group of young artists, beaming. I think it must have been a significant time for him in that he was surrounded by people who were recognizing him as an artist."
Besides borrowing pieces from the Kansas City Art Institute for the St. Louis show, curator Uslip also borrowed the one piece that’s in the Smithsonian, as well as work from private collections to recreate Howard’s art environment.
“I wanted the exhibition to present an authentic way in which Jesse lived and worked: floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall, fully enveloping the viewer in his first-person narrative,” Uslip says.
Jesse Howard died in 1983. But there’s a reason Howard’s new show is in a contemporary art museum. It’s still relevant, especially considering what’s been happening in the streets of Ferguson.
“Life in St. Louis is a very charged time right now," Uslip says. "And I think Jesse’s first-person narrative really speaks to a larger trajectory of how people are with each other, how people handle diversity and volatility, but really how this type of voice came to fruition.”
'Jesse Howard: Thy Kingdom Come' is up through April 11 at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 314-535-4660. The actor who reads from Howard's signs in the audio version of this story (posted above) is Daniel Boothe.