The High Museum of Art this spring hosts a wonderfully quirky exhibition featuring self-taught artists discovered in the nooks and crannies of the South by poet and publisher Jonathan Williams (1929–2008) and photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley. The show, Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads, runs through May 19.
The artists featured come from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The names, likely, are familiar: Georgia Blizzard, Thornton Dial, Sam Doyle, Howard Finster, Eddie Owens Martin, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Mose Tolliver and Edgar Tolson, among others.
The title Way Out There is multidimensional, says Katherine Jentleson, the High’s curator of folk and self-taught art. It refers to both geography and point of view.
Williams, Mendes and Manley trekked throughout the South in the 1980s and ‘90s. So, when you enter the show, you’ll encounter a map showing 74 spots. Way Out There digs into about 30 of those with more than 50 sculptures, paintings and other work alongside some 100 photographs from Mendes and Manley. Many are being seen for the first time.
Although poet-publisher Williams came from a privileged art background, Jentleson says he may have been ahead of his time in his ability to value the undervalued in society. Williams studied at the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina, was exposed to immigrant artists, some of the greatest artists of the era, and spent time in Europe. “To him,” Jentleson says, “there was no hierarchy. There was no ‘this is fine art, this is something else.’’’
Williams wrote down thoughts and observations from his travels. The words and photos were bound in a manuscript and shelved — until now. Institute 193, a nonprofit in Lexington, Kentucky, has published the poet’s text as Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey, and it accompanies this exhibition.
It provides a much deeper look into the art of Southern backroads, says Gregory Harris, the High’s associate curator of photography. To get the whole story, you have to read the book.
If you step into the High’s exhibit, you might just leave with a sense of possibility and adventure, the curators say. “What the book and exhibition together reveal is that there are incredible things happening right on your doorstep,” Harris says. “If you seek it out, there’s a life-changing experience to be had. And it’s accessible to the people who search for it.”