Civil Liberties

The Signs and Wonders of Jesse Howard


Art or eyesore?

Today I stopped by the American Visionary Art Museum here in Baltimore, where the current exhibit is called "Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness." It is, despite the Molly Ivins quote in the introductory text and the Clifford Odets paintings upstairs, a fairly libertarian show; it celebrates free speech, resisting tyranny, and minding your own business. And as usual at AVAM, the art itself is generally great. But I'm not here to review the exhibition. I'm here to give a shout-out to one of the stars of the show: Jesse Howard (1885-1983), an ornery Missouri sign-painter, gadget-builder, and free speech fighter whose work fills the hall from the front desk to the rest of the venue.

Not long after Howard started painting, vandals damaged some of his signs. So Howard put up more signs denouncing the vandals. The vandals attacked the new signs, Howard made yet more signs in response, and everything kept spiralling until the signs were all over his property and the local busybodies were up in arms, denouncing Howard's output as an eyesore and circulating a petition to have him committed. He kept painting anyway, producing placards on a variety of religious, political, and personal subjects. Eventually the collectors discovered him, and suddenly the local eccentric was a celebrated creator of what was known then as "naive" and now as "outsider" art.

And the signs themselves? I'll let Donald Hoffman describe them:

In [Richard Rhodes' book Naives and Visionaries], Howard is described as "the Grandma Moses of print culture"—which striked me a facile phrase quite beside the mark, because Howard's authentic and almost truculent messages are far indeed from hokey nostalgia. Take this sign:

000,000. Nothing. No confidence. No nothing. NO: 000.

At one point he tried to get in to the White House to share his views with President Eisenhower. Ike was unavailable.

Call it depression mental or financial; whatever, there is a poignant cry deep within a painted "shield" that reads like that. Howard's anger is rarely without humor….

Some of his signs are simply observations:

If we are not dodging bullets it is a cinch that we are dodging the horseless wagon. The automobile…

Sometimes he chooses to enter the political arena:

John F. Kennedy. If I would girk that big fat teat out of your mouth that you have been nurseing all of your life they cold HEAR you BELLER and BAWL like a year old WEANED BULL-CALF. You would not need a LOUD speaker for you could hear YOURSELF…It would be WORSER then the St. Louis National Slaughter Pen's.

Or on a more local level:

Sheriff W. A. Bill Dawson. How did you get those holes wore in the knees of your pants? Bill. O, I did that praying. And those wore in the seat of your pants? Bill. I did that backsliding.

The cumulative effect of Jesse Howard's signs has that strange sort of beauty that comes from naked force visually expressed….There is one of his signs that is hinged, to fold in on itself; the backside says simply:

"If you won't throw me in JAIL I will unfold you the truth."