Where Paradise Lay
Art and Southern Sanctuary
On View April 17 - August 16, 2020
Where Paradise Lay is an exhibition that takes inspiration from the book Walks to the Paradise Garden, written by the poet, founder of the Jargon Society, and Black Mountain College alum, Jonathan Williams. Nearly thirty years after its completion in 1992, Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky published the text and images that chronicled Williams’ periodic journeys in the 1980’s and early 90’s with photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley as they searched for artists who, in Williams’ words, “live on the heath, amid the rhododendron and laurel and heather and sand myrtle—just like me.” The chronicle focused on a region “between Virginia and Louisiana, from the Ohio River to the Everglades,” and many of the people they encountered weren’t actually self-identifying as artists, likely having the same response as Elijah Pierce, who was featured here at KMAC in 2014 and who famously stated in 1976, “I didn’t even know I was an artist till they told me.” The works of several of the artists profiled and documented during their trips have since been acquired by U.S. institutions that include KMAC Museum, as well as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Smithsonian, and the High Museum in Atlanta. The High Museum adapted the Williams manuscript into an exhibition entitled Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads in early 2019 on the occasion of the first publication of Walks to the Paradise Garden, borrowing Mendes’ proposed, but rejected, title for the manuscript, Way Out People Way Out There.
Due to the great efforts of advocates like former University of Kentucky art professor Michael Hall, who worked to include the Kentucky woodcarver Edgar Tolson in the 1973 Whitney Biennial, and New Museum founder Marcia Tucker, who included Howard Finster from Georgia in her exhibition for the American Pavilion at the 41st Venice Biennale in 1984, considerable attention had begun to be paid to these difficult to classify artists, despite their having been folded into the labels folk artist, outsider, self-taught, or visionary artist, a collection of terms intended to differentiate them from artists who were “trained” within an international system of university art programs.
It was during this period that KMAC Museum itself was founded in 1981, originally as the Kentucky Art and Craft foundation, exhibiting traditional craft and folk artists from the region. A year later Jane Livingston and John Beardsley organized the seminal exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. Two years after that, in 1984, Jonathan Williams made the first trip documented in the book. The 1970’s and 80’s were a fertile period when curators, writers, photographers and collectors like William Arnett were championing and exposing the exuberant, previously unheralded work that was being made by unknown artists throughout the American Southeast. As younger generations continue to synthesize the techniques and aesthetics displayed in the work of these artists, historians are more openly discussing the social and economic reasons for their remaining unknown for so long in the first place.
Where Paradise Lay looks at the late 20th century intrigue that flourished around this region, revisiting this museum’s own legacy in the history of collecting and exhibiting work from those who are, as Williams writes, “directly involved with making a paradise for themselves in the front yard, the back garden, the parlor, the sun porch, the basement.” KMAC Museum is now at the center of a discourse in contemporary art that places these artists in context with an increasingly global contemporary culture that looks to the Southern U.S. for inspiration. KMAC’s exhibition will reveal how artists, like those featured in Walks to the Paradise Garden -Annie Hooper, Mose Tolliver, Lonnie Holley, Martha Nelson Thomas, Eddie Owens Martin, Howard Finster - have helped to construct America’s artistic and cultural roots, shaping our country’s collective visual identity.
Martha Nelson Thomas with her Doll Babies,
Louisville, KY, 1987.