The Story of Myrtice West & the Revelations Series

Ann Oppenhimer and Chuck Rosenak

LOCATED IN THE FOOTHILLS of the Appalachian Mountains in a landscape of waterfalls, streams, and lakes, Centre, Alabama was never part of the romantic Gone with the Wind South. Myrtice Snead West, who lives in Centre and is known to her friends as “Sissie,” wears her graying hair up in a matronly manner and speaks with the nasal, drawn-out twang of an elderly, rural white Alabaman. Like the town of Centre, West has been bypassed by the “New South,” but she has a unique voice and a remarkable tale to tell through her art.

West was isolated from most of her generation of Americans from the moment of her birth on September 14, 1923, in Cherokee County, Alabama. “There ain’t no cities in Cherokee. My Daddy had a farm ’way back on Spring Creek,” she says. “We went on foot to church in McCord’s Crossroads. On one corner there was a Baptist church; down the road were the Methodists. To keep relatives happy [she had preachers of both denominations in the family], we went to one church one week, t’othern the next. We Baptists and Methodists grew up together. I’d call myself a crossbreed—but now I’m a Baptist.”

The big event of West’s youth was her baptism at age fourteen in Spring Creek. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States; the Great Depression was a plague on the nation; and World War II was a cloud on the horizon. In Atlanta, girls her age were dancing the boogie-woogie, but West’s horizons were limited by fundamentalist sermons, Bible readings, and small-farm cotton prices. The answers to daily problems in her backwater world were in the Bible and in prayer. Like Centre, the small town just southwest of her birthplace, West was ill-prepared for the industrialization of the South.

“When I got old enough, I picked cotton,” she says. “I left school during the war and married.” Wallace and Myrtice West eventually settled on the Jordan farm on Cowan’s Creek. Later, she would paint the ducks that swam peacefully in the creek beside her house. “During World War II, I read the Bible straight through four times,” she recalls. “My brothers, my husband, my cousins were all overseas. Lots of them weren’t coming back. We prayed a lot. You could hear them praying all over the settlement.”

Wallace and Myrtice West, circa 1942.

In time, the grueling, labor-intensive endeavor of harvesting cotton became mechanized. Herbicides and machinery replaced hoe and picker. Many who remained on the land in Cherokee County were bypassed by progress and left without work.

Cotton and tobacco usurped the forests that pioneer settlers found in northern Alabama, and today the changing economic tide of rural Alabama continues its advance. Modern factories march across the worn-out farms, and mile after mile of dull rows of softwood pine are planted and harvested like so many giant stalks of corn. New arrivals come from the North to find jobs in plants sporting the logos of General Motors, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz. Many native southerners like Myrtice West have been left with little more than their fundamental religious strengths. But these are strong people, survivors whose rural hardships have been replaced by urban hardships, and they have stories to tell.

The man who once occupied the rambling, southern-style home in Centre, once white and now peeling in the weather, moved farther south and sold the house to the Wests in 1977. They feel fortunate to have the house and the space for their extended family, which now includes not only West's grandchildren, Kara and Bram, but also their spouses and even a great-granddaughter. On the veranda, West hangs her cut-out angels to sell to visitors. When a breeze blows, they fall from their coat-hanger hooks onto the plank floor. “They’s fallen angels,” she explains with a laugh, while resurrecting them with a stepladder kept on the porch.

[Editor’s note: The house described above burned to the ground in February, 2000, along with most of the West’s possessions. No one was injured, and the family has moved to another house in Centre.]

West started to paint in 1952, about the time of her second miscarriage. “Before, I never thought of art,” she says. “After my miscarriage, all I wanted to do was lie on the floor and draw pictures of Christ. It was like the hand of God directing me.” But, even before this time of trouble, her artistic endeavor had begun. When she was just a child picking cotton in the fields, West says, “I was always bad to collect pictures and make things.” For years, she drew pictures of rural scenes, riverboats, animals, flowers, a few angels. Many of these bucolic renderings still hang on the crowded walls of her home.

Her husband Wallace had been taking photographs of “weddings and ballgames and such.” He had started with a simple Brownie camera, and Myrtice took a correspondence course to learn how to hand-color photographs. By adding color to her husband’s pictures, she could make them more attractive to buyers.

Her tinted photographs may have brought in some needed funds, but they were not art. Her early paintings found a local market, but they were not art. The painted gourds with religious scenes on them and the cut-out angels, which she still occasionally makes, are colorful and charming, but they are not art. It took West many years to find her voice and sing her own song. West’s early works were copies of genre paintings, postcards, and pictures, both secular and religious, taken from books and from memory. “When I started,” she explains, “I didn’t know about brushes nor colors. I couldn’t even hold a brush!” West painstakingly taught herself a craft, which became an essential ingredient for the art that was to follow.

Wallace, Myrtice, and Martha Jane West, circa 1963. Myrtice hand-colored this photograph, a craft she practiced for many years.

Like many other folk and self-taught artists, Myrtice West had a decisive moment in her life, a sudden traumatic experience that left her a different person. Her life pivots on the story of her daughter Martha Jane, and her words spill out in a torrent as she tells how the little girl, the child she tried so hard to conceive after two miscarriages and a tumor, was born in 1956. “I thought she was our miracle, our gift from God.” Just three decades later, however, Martha Jane, a young mother of two children, would be murdered by her ex-husband Brett Barnett. It was a classic case of spousal abuse, and although West’s rambling conversation touches on many subjects, she always comes back to the story of Martha Jane’s death.

West says she had a premonition that something bad would happen to her daughter and grandchildren. When the young family left in 1977 for Japan, where Barnett was stationed with the Air Force, she wrote, “When I watched them leave that day, my heart was breaking.” For comfort and solace, she turned to painting religious pictures. She first attempted a large painting of Christ ascending into heaven, which she intended as a gift to her grandson Bram. She was so pleased with the results that she became inspired to illustrate the New Testament book of Revelation. In the same way that reading the Bible had helped West survive her fears during World War II, reading and interpreting Revelation helped her survive the chronic worry over her family’s well-being.

“I knew her husband was a mean man,” she says. “He’d lock my grandson in his room for weeks at a time. He chewed up tobacco and made the boy drink the juice. That day, I got a feeling we should go to Birmingham [where Martha Jane and her children were living]. It was 1986 when the killing happened; Bram was twelve.” A decade later, West’s emotions are as fragile as the day she learned that Martha Jane had been shot by Brett Barnett, who is now in prison with a life sentence. West worries that Barnett might be paroled. “He will kill again,” she says. “He’s low-down mean.”

West began work on the Revelations Series in early 1978 when she first became obsessed with her daughter’s unhappy family life. After Martha Jane and the children left for Japan, West’s grief continued to mount. Her sorrow went beyond her capability to imagine, beyond anything she had a right to expect from a loving God. The solution to her grief, the answer to her problems—and comprehension of the ensuing tragedy—came from the Bible. Night after night she sat alone with her cup of coffee. She read the Bible at the plank-board table in the kitchen. Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Four o’clock. In the company of the noises of sleepers and the creaking of the old house, she sat alone studying the Bible. In time, solutions to the mystery of God’s will appeared to her. “I saw Revelations in flashes,” she says. “Whether it was through my eyes, God’s eyes, or St. John’s eyes, I’m not sure. But the hand of God directed me to put it down.”

Painting the book of Revelation became a way for West to work through her anguish. The undertaking meant reading and re-reading the twenty-two chapters of the last—and to many scholars, most difficult and bizarre—book of the Bible. Not only did West intend to make paintings that would explain the obscure and mystical Scripture, but she also set herself the task of illuminating the text almost verse by verse. Over the next twenty years, painting would become her self-taught form of therapy, a way of coping with an unspeakable crime and the loss of her only child.

In 1983, West self-published a 47-page booklet, The Book of Revelation in Spirit and Vision. In the book, she explained that the Revelations paintings, like her writing, were inspired by God. “I sat here sometime late, probably after midnight. Starting on this book as I started on my pictures—unless you enter into the Spirit you probably can’t believe this—but Christ now has drawn a curtain, and I can’t remember how I drew them. I felt as if someone else held the brush when I painted them, and now it is as if someone else holds the pencil as I write.”

Over a period of seven years, working mostly in the early morning hours, West “put down” the paintings as, she believes, God directed. She first worked in pencil to draw the figures, and then gave them a light coating of paint made from dry powder mixed with water so the lines would show through but not smear. After this she “came in with the oils,” often using both acrylic and oil paint for the layers of color. “It took me three months to put each one down and three months to paint it,” West says about the thirteen paintings. On three of the pieces, she painted on both sides of single sheets of plywood. Others were painted on cloth “couch covers” stretched over window-screen frames, which West purchased from someone who came by her house with a truckload of screens. She bought them thinking she would find a use for them eventually.

Born in anxiety, the Revelations Series became West’s passion. “You keep the paintings on your mind instead of your troubles,” she explains. They have the essential ingredients of great folk art: a fearless creative and personal vision that is both universal and intimate. Her paintings gave her a chance to impose order, structure, and certainty in a life suddenly consumed with confusion—and in a world in which it seemed that God had disappeared. In art, West found a remedy to heal her life and a song to connect with the wide world that had bypassed Centre, Alabama.

“Putting down” some of the characters in Revelation “was easy,” she says. “I knew what the angels looked like from my illustrated Bible. Adam I got from that chapel across the seas [the Sistine Chapel]. God and Adam is whiter than white—more beautiful than I can make ’em.” So there were elements of earlier art in the work, some that would be considered trite to a trained artist: winged angels in white robes, cartoonish animals, etc. The rest—the composition, colors, dimensions, and biblical references and characters that weren’t to be found in illustrations—she had to “work out” for herself, find her own artistic voice, and, as she would say, let God direct her brushes as she made the thousands of choices every artist must make to complete a piece.

Myrtice West in the back hall of her home in
1993, surrounded by her Revelations Series
and other paintings.

For several years after completing the series, West refused to sell the Revelations paintings, although she had offers and a need for income. However, the work represented seven years of anguish, and she felt the series should remain together, rather than be sold off individually and scattered across the country. Eventually, an Alabama folk art dealer persuaded her to paint a copy of each painting in the series; the dealer said she would sell the copies and take a percentage. These copies became known as the “Second Set” of the Revelations Series, and, while fascinating compared to much contemporary folk art, they are clearly inferior to the originals. As West explains, “I did the Second Set in less than a year, so I could sell them. Anyone can tell the difference; they just ain’t that good.” It took many years for the Second Set paintings to sell, and West now regrets the time she lost making copies rather than creating new works. From 1993 to 1998, West again became inspired and completed two multi-painting series, one depicting the book of Ezekiel, another Daniel. As of this writing, she is working on a series of paintings from Zechariah.

In the late summer of 1992, Rollin Riggs, a Memphis businessman, journalist, and occasional folk art collector, decided to break up his drive from Atlanta with a visit to West’s home. He had visited several artists between Memphis and Atlanta—Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Howard Finster, Fred Webster, B.F. Perkins, Burgess Dulaney—and had become charmed by both the art and the artists. When he arrived in Centre, he stopped at the Pump House, the small gas station at the intersection of Routes 9 and 411, and asked the cashier if he knew Myrtice West. He gave Riggs directions to the West’s home a few blocks away, telling him to look for the house with the big painting of Jesus on the front porch.

When Riggs entered West’s home, he knew his life had changed. In the hallway, he saw the breathtaking tableau of all the Revelations paintings hanging along the walls. Scattered throughout the house, he found painting after painting that he knew was extraordinary—and almost unknown to the burgeoning folk art world. He offered to buy the original Satan Takes Over, but, as always, West wouldn’t sell. Instead, he bought its Second Set version and eight other religious paintings. According to West, Riggs was “an angel sent by God,” and his check for the nine paintings prevented the imminent repossession of the family van.

Over the next year, Riggs visited West numerous times, sometimes buying art but mostly befriending, counseling, and documenting the artist. Increasing numbers of collectors and dealers were finding their way to Centre and making sometimes complicated proposals to West: consignment deals, licensing offers, and such. As Riggs helped West with her business and personal questions, he became convinced that the Revelations Series was an extraordinary body of art that also represented a certain type of 20th-century Southerner who was vanishing with age and the pervasive mass media. He thought there might be a book in it, and he worried that the paintings were unprotected from fire and theft.

Myrtice West with
Christ and Bride Coming into Wedding.

In the fall of 1993, as her grandson prepared to go to college, West decided it was time to sell the Revelations Series. She had come to like and trust Riggs and several other folk art dealers, and, at Riggs’ urging, she hired a lawyer in Rome, Georgia to represent her in the sale of the paintings. Riggs submitted the best bid for the Series, which included cash and “best efforts” clauses to keep the paintings together and to publish a book on them and West. In late 1993, Riggs hired a videographer to document the paintings in the West's home, and then he loaded them into a van and drove them to Memphis. West dashed to the bank to deposit his check and pay off her mortgage, and then she went back to work on her new Ezekiel Series.

In The Book of Revelation in Spirit and Vision, a determined woman with only an eighth-grade education presents a detailed analysis of the first four chapters of Revelation. She carefully dissects the sentences of each verse and applies their teachings to her art and life in the hope of getting God’s message out. “There is an unseen hand in this work,” she writes. “As I take my pen in hand, I know also I am not a writer and unless Christ comes in, I’m afraid I can’t explain how I did these pictures or why.” Ultimately, the job of interpreting the entire book of Revelation proved to be too much for her, and she completed the visionary Revelations paintings instead.

West is delighted that a group of writers studied her paintings in order to make a book about them. “When Rollin said that he was going to get people to write about each of my paintings, I felt like God had sent him.” She especially likes the fact that each writer has written in his or her own way—some perusing and reflecting on a painting, others making personal or telephone interviews. One writer even sent her twelve pages of questions to answer about a painting. She is glad that all the contributors were exposed to St. John’s writings and his revelatory message, just like the people who will read this book and see her paintings. “This way, so many others will get inspiration. This is what God wanted,” she says.

Myrtice West has turned the fire and brimstone of her anger into paintings that erupt with vengeance—and promise glory for those who believe in Christ. She has sublimated her anguished memories into paintings that preach from the depths of her distressed soul. She slays her dragons pictorially, and she keeps her daughter’s memory alive with her paintings. West is an evangelist in paint who hopes to help others at the same time she helps herself. She easily slips into a rambling sermon that mixes biblical quotations with the jargon of a television evangelist, and she defends her use of images as an aid to religious teaching.

Despite her troubles and her religious zeal, West is a vivacious, friendly, energetic woman. She tends a yard full of flowers and cats, cooks for her husband Wallace (“who has had cancer eight times”), her grandchildren and their friends, and, after raising her two grandchildren and nursing her mother (who died in 1996), is now the matriarch of an extended family of seven who either live with her and Wallace or nearby. She’s a woman who has worked hard and looked after the needs of others all her life.

Wallace and Myrtice West, 2003.

It takes time to evaluate a work of art and the oeuvre of an artist. Myrtice West is not alone in painting her dreams and religious visions, and she is one of several self-taught artists in the late 20th century who see their paintings as a means of spreading the gospel and warning the world of a coming Apocalypse. But the Revelations Series of Myrtice West has already made a huge contribution to the field of visionary art, and her passion has made an enormous difference in the lives of Rollin Riggs, Carol Crown, the essayists in this book, and all those who have met her and studied her paintings. West’s song, which was “put down at her eatin’ table” in the middle of the night—without hope of recognition, amid desperation and violence—is being heard at last.


Ann F. Oppenhimer has a B.S. degree from the University of Richmond and an M.A. degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. For 17 years, she taught art history at the University of Richmond, where she was curator of Sermons in Paint: A Howard Finster Folk Art Festival, one of the first university exhibitions of Finster’s work. In 1987, she and her husband, William Oppenhimer, founded the Folk Art Society of America, a national organization for the discovery, exhibition, study, and preservation of folk art. She currently serves as president of the Folk Art Society of America and is publisher of the quarterly magazine, Folk Art Messenger.

Chuck Rosenak, attorney, author, and recognized American folk art expert, has made collecting a second career and fashioned a New Mexico lifestyle devoted to finding and promoting the best self-taught artists working in the United States. With his wife Jan, Rosenak has authored the authoritative Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists (1990), as well as Navajo Folk Art: The People Speak (1994), Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector’s Guide (1996), and Saint Makers: Contemporary Santeras y Santeros (1998). In 1999, the Rosenaks donated their extensive research files to the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C.


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

 

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