Mary Tillman Smith, 1904-1995
A native of Copiah County, Mississippi, Mary Tillman Smith began "making pictures" in the
late 1970s or early 1980s.1 Often motivated by her religious faith and the desire to "pretty her yard," Smith transformed her approximately one acre home place into a fantastic art environment of
painted tin, wood, and other found and recycled objects. She painted local figures on corrugated tin and mounted the portraits on her fence, her dog pen, or her son's garage. In the mid-1980s her vegetable
garden included scarecrows made of tin, bicycle parts, paint can lids, and painted faces. Once collectors and art dealers located her yard on Highway 51 on the south side of Hazelhurst, her yard changed from
a powerful and energetic art environment to a sparsely decorated yard. Smith attempted to keep up with the demand by painting quickly and replacing the bought art, but the buyers were ultimately too
An honest, unassuming woman who made friends easily and who wore her humility as a badge, she frequently shared her wisdom with visitors. A visitor to Mary T. Smith's yard might have heard
her personal motto which she had carefully inscribed above her dog pen: "One face is all right, two face won't do."
The daughter of sharecroppers, Smith married first in 1922. In the 1930s,
she married again, this time to John Smith. The couple then sharecropped near Martinsville, Mississippi. Her son, Sherdie Major, remembers that the Smith's were "run off in 1938 because she [Mary T.
Smith] could do accounts and figured out that she was not fairly treated." In later years Smith did domestic work and gardened.
Smith's paintings have been widely collected and exhibited. Her
many exhibition credits include "Baking in the Sun: Visionary Images from the South"(1987) and "Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in Our Time"(1988) at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
This was written with the help of two important sources: Sylvia and Warren Lowe, Baking In The Sun: Visionary Images from the South. Lafayette: University Art Museum, University of Southwestern
Louisiana, 1987; and Chuck and Jan Rosenak, The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York: Abbeville, 1990.--TR
Photograph by Tom Rankin.