Using little more than roots, shells, and paint, visionary artist Bessie Harvey assembled a diverse cast of figures that appeared vividly before her mind’s eye. Biblical characters, African ancestors, mythological creatures, and episodes from African American history materialized under her touch with equal intensity. Each reveals the richness of her imagination, the depth of her spirituality, and her extraordinary gifts as a storyteller.
Born Bessie Ruth White on October 11, 1929, Harvey was the seventh of thirteen children born to Homer and Rosie Mae White in Dallas, Georgia. In her early twenties she moved to Tennessee, living briefly in Knoxville and then permanently in nearby Alcoa, where she secured a job with Blount Memorial Hospital in order to help provide for her children and grandchildren. Although aware of her own creative gifts as a child, Harvey did not devote her full-time energies to making art until in her late forties. Seeking solace from life’s challenges, she found strength and comfort in her faith and began to discern spirits in seemingly ordinary pieces of gnarled wood. Whorls and knots might indicate the eyes or a mouth of a biblical character just as an attenuated branch might suggest a serpent. In her makeshift basement studio, Harvey added paint, wood putty, shells, hair, cloth, and other items to each piece of wood in order to give vivid physical form to the spirit she perceived within. Her earliest creations tended to be small, simple figures decorated only with black paint, human hair, and shells or beads. Collectors began to recognize the raw expressive power of her strange, dark figures, and Harvey’s reputation soared by the early 1980s.
Troubled by local rumors that her work was the product of voodoo, Harvey one day in 1983 burned the contents of her studio. After a few weeks of self-reflection, however, she went back to work with the newfound realization that her sculptures were important messages from God to a troubled world. Her works became increasingly large, colorful, and elaborate and enriched by glitter, cloth, beads, and jewelry. She also embarked on a loosely autobiographical series, Africa in America, which she intended as a teaching tool for children in her community. By the time of her death in 1994, the series included more than twenty sculptural dioramas depicting the African American experience and race relations during and after the era of slavery. Unlike Harvey’s earlier spirit sculptures, the works in Africa in America are highly descriptive and can be seen as carefully planned episodes in an epic narrative. However, they too reflect the artist’s ability to transform ordinary materials into objects of uncommon aesthetic power infused with moral concepts of universal relevance.
Paul Arnett, ed. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South (2000); Stephen C. Wicks, Awakening the Spirits: Art by Bessie Harvey (1997)