Foreword

Leslie Luebbers

Myrtice West and Rollin Riggs, 2003.
     

IN RESPONSE TO A DIVINE DIRECTIVE, Myrtice West painted the Revelations Series and thereby saved her life and preserved her sanity during years of staggering personal turmoil. For several years after completing the series, she kept the group of thirteen paintings at home as a source of inspiration and strength, and when she sold the series to collector Rollin Riggs in 1993, she did so partly in the hope that its message would be extended. “If it saved just one soul, it would be well worth it,” she told Riggs.

 The series has been shown publicly several times since then, but the number of rescued souls is unknown. However, the Revelations Series has profoundly changed the lives of the two people who have been instrumental to the production of Wonders to Behold.

Rollin Riggs became an art collector almost by accident. In 1986, after visiting friends near Atlanta, Riggs decided to enliven the long drive home to Memphis by stopping to visit Rev. Howard Finster, who had recently been featured in the Wall Street Journal on the occasion of the release of his album cover design for the band Talking Heads. Many hours and most of his small bank account later, Riggs owned three paintings by a self-taught artist, and he was hooked on the unique charm, not only of the art, but also of the method of collecting. Again and again, as he drove from city to city, Riggs stopped to find and befriend artists and to buy their work.

In the autumn of 1992, returning again from Atlanta, Riggs decided to stop in the town of Centre, Alabama to look for Myrtice West. Though he had read a brief biography of her in the booklet Outsider Artists in Alabama published by the Alabama State Council on the Arts, he knew nothing more about her, had not seen her artwork, and intended to expend no great effort in the pursuit. He found her, and nine hours later his life had changed, though he didn’t know how much. Like visitors before him, Riggs offered to buy a painting from the Revelations Series, and West, as always, refused. Nevertheless, Riggs left with several of her other paintings in his car.

In the course of many visits over the next year, West and Riggs became good friends. Nothing in their lives had prepared these two, so far apart in background, education, and age, for caring about each other, but they did. Riggs had grown up in a respected Memphis family—the son and grandson of prominent physicians, educated at the city’s best prep school and a 1982 graduate of Yale. He had worked for 10 years as a photojournalist for the New York Times and the Associated Press, had co-authored four books, and owned a small, successful publishing company. He was 32 years old. West, age 69, grew up in poor, isolated northeast Alabama and had left school in the eighth grade. She had never flown in an airplane and believed in an inerrant, literal Bible.

Myrtice West, 2003.

Though he had early hopes that she would sell him at least one of the paintings from the Revelations Series, Riggs came to agree with West that the thirteen paintings should stay together. Even if she did decide to sell them, Riggs didn’t have the money to purchase the whole group, but among the topics they discussed was the idea of publishing a book on the paintings. West knew that Riggs was a publisher, although he assured her that art books were quite far from the quirky paperback titles on his list. The prospect of a book, however, may have contributed to West’s decision in the fall of 1993, when she called to tell him that she wanted to sell the series. Her grandson had enrolled in college, the family van was in danger of being repossessed, and the time had come to let go of the paintings.

Although it was a daunting fiscal consideration, Riggs had little time to think about the transaction; West had a long-standing offer for the paintings from an Alabama folk-art dealer. He advised West to contact an area lawyer to arrange a sale by sealed bid. In November, West and her attorney selected Riggs’ proposal, which included a best-efforts clause to keep the series intact and to publish a book. Six years later, Wonders to Behold fulfills that intention.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1993, students in museum studies at the University of Memphis organized an exhibition of selections from unusual local collections entitled Consuming Passions. Rollin Riggs first came to light as a passionate collector of black velvet Elvis paintings, but the students were more fascinated by his collection of works by self-taught artists such as Finster, Jim Sudduth, B. F. Perkins, Hawkins Bolden, Henry Speller, and two remarkable paintings by West—a copy of a painting in the Revelations Series and the first painting from her Ezekiel Series. In the exhibition at The University of Memphis Art Museum, which was filled with all manner of strange and wondrous things from Memphis collectors, these two paintings attracted attention and admiration. Later that year, when Riggs acquired the Revelations Series, he asked if the Art Museum would be interested in a show.

The museum was able to adjust its calendar for a show from December 1995 through January 1996 entitled Revelation: The Paintings of Myrtice West. One of Riggs’ primary objectives was to publish a catalog, a goal shared by the Art Museum, but the main impediment was identifying an essayist who could provide a credible scholarly interpretation of the Revelations Series. From the museum’s perspective, the standard-issue biographical sob story used to explicate self-taught artists and their work was unacceptable. The subject matter—Revelation, with its links to creation and recreation narratives throughout the Old and New Testaments—should offer considerable scope for scholarship and interpretation, we thought. But who could deal with it?

Dr. Carol Crown, a historian of medieval art in The University of Memphis Art Department, was minimally flattered and mainly alarmed to discover that she had been chosen, so to speak, to apply her expertise in Romanesque iconography to contemporary folk-artistic production. She resisted. But she did agree to meet Riggs and look at the paintings and the video Riggs had made of West explaining them. Intrigued, she went to Centre to interview West, whose religious beliefs Crown connected to people and ideas dimly recalled from her childhood. Crown was captivated. Delving into realms of theology heretofore unfamiliar, she discovered such things as dispensational premillennialism at, and more surprisingly, just below the surface of Southern life, including life at the University and among friends and acquaintances in Memphis. Working at a mad pace to identify and distinguish various millennial philosophies in contemporary theology, Crown produced an interpretive article, “Myrtice West, The Revelations Series, and the End Times,” that intelligently and thoughtfully elucidated a major theme in the work of self-taught artists. The project changed her life.

Crown, now a historian of religious iconography in the work of self-taught artists, accepted Riggs’ offer to be the editor of Wonders to Behold. She had, meanwhile, written and lectured at conferences across the country on Myrtice West’s and Howard Finster’s religious imagery, developed an exhibition project, and taught seminars on self-taught artists. Riggs’ idea for the book was to find thirteen or so essayists—folklorists, artists, religious scholars, art critics, collectors—who would live with one of the paintings for a few months and then write about it. This became Crown’s project, and in the process, she met and worked with the pioneer researchers of and writers on self-taught art, as well as newcomers to the realm.

Chuck Rosenak, author of essential guidebooks to American self-taught artists, collaborated with Ann Oppenhimer, founder of the Folk Art Society of America, on the biographical introduction to Myrtice West. George Fowler, former Roman Catholic priest and well-known writer on spiritual matters, addresses the first painting emphasizing West’s approach to cosmic, archetypal truths. Lee Kogan, director of the Folk Art Institute at New York’s Museum of American Folk Art, compares the second painting to part of Handel’s Messiah inspired by the same biblical passages. Norman Girardot, a professor of comparative religions and scholar of popular culture and contemporary visionary art, focuses on West’s third painting in relation to violent and cosmic cinematic confrontations between good and evil.

Ben Apfelbaum, a folk art scholar, writer, curator, and appraiser, discusses West’s fourth painting in terms of an educational aid for the saving of souls, describing the work as a charming but matter-of-fact visual transcription of Revelation. Founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Rebecca Hoffberger offers a complex, gently feminist interpretation of the fifth painting, Woman on the Moon Giving Birth to Christ. Miriam Fowler, head of Education, Outreach and Public Programs at the Birmingham Museum of Art and one of the first “insiders” to discover West’s “outsider” art, discusses the sixth painting of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden in terms of the artist’s experience of relations between husbands and wives in her own marriage and in her daughter’s. Howard Finster, in a tape-recorded discussion of West’s seventh painting, emphasizes the terrifying responsibility for an artist of being true to God’s word and talks about the fulfillment of John’s prophecy in the twentieth century.

Folklorist, curator, and writer Roger Manley selected West’s most striking and original painting, Satan Takes Over, in which the complicated narrative structure is contained within the face of Satan as it came to West in a vivid, horrifying dream. Tom Patterson, a writer and independent curator, offers a carefully drawn visual comparison of West’s ninth painting, Song of Moses, with the cinematic drama of chapters 14-16 of Revelation. Visionary artist and biblical scholar Norbert Kox analyzes the passages that inspired West’s tenth painting, Mother of Harlots, and provides both a historical and a contemporary interpretation that identifies New York as the secular Babylon and the Vatican as the religious Babylon.

Benjamin G. Wright, III, a scholar of early Christian and Judaic religion, explains West’s Revelation paintings, grounded in dispensational Christianity, as her personal method of “actualizing…the power of the myth” of God’s deliverance. Appropriately, Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, discusses West’s imagery in terms of the development of premillennial Christian thinking in the post-Civil War South. Gary Schwindler, an artist, teacher, and writer, takes an art critical approach to the final painting, Christ and Bride Coming into Wedding, discussing it in terms of composition, color, and West’s use of the elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

Wonders to Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West is itself the realization of a vision shared by Myrtice West and Rollin Riggs and shepherded by Carol Crown. Beyond the various fascinating perspectives presented by the authors on West’s masterly artistic achievement, the book provides proof that self-taught art is a rich field for investigation and interpretation.

If Myrtice West’s Revelations Series saves a single soul, beyond her own, it will have achieved her objective. As a result of the recognition afforded by this book and exhibitions of her work, the opportunities are far greater than they might otherwise have been. Rollin Riggs, with Carol Crown’s dedicated assistance and the insights of over a dozen generous essayists, has brought Myrtice West’s message and her artistry to a world that has often recognized the power, but rarely understood the complexity, of religious self-taught art.

Leslie L. Luebbers, Director
Art Museum of the University of Memphis


Excerpted from Wonders to Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West. Copyright © Mustang Publishing Company, Inc. Reproduced with permission.

 

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