Outsider Art

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."

NEXT: Russia's Backsliding Continues

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  1. Wait a minute, doesn’t Howard’s right to plaster signs everywhere conflict with others’ rights not to have to look at them?

    1. Blind Scouse

      Serves 4
      Preparation time: 15 minutes
      Cooking time: 45 minutes



      * 1 leek, washed well and cut into bite sized chunks
      * 2 medium onions, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
      * 3 medium (500g) potatoes, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
      * 3 ??” 4 (300g) carrots, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
      * 1-2 handfuls pearl barley (soaked overnight in cold water or soaked in boiling water for an hour)
      * 1ltr vegetable stock
      * 1x 410g can butter beans, rinsed and drained
      * to taste salt and pepper

      To serve:

      ? Herb dumplings
      ? Pickled red cabbage, or chopped pickled beetroot (optional)


      1. For the Scouse: Put all ingredients except the butter beans in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and simmer for 30 minutes.

      2. Add the butter beans, return to the boil then add the dumplings (if using). Replace lid and simmer for a further 15 minutes. Serve in soup plates.

      Dumplings (optional)
      (Makes about 16)

      * 125g self raising flour
      * 50g vegetable suet
      * 1tbs onion, peeled and very finely chopped
      * 2tsp dried mixed herbs
      * to taste salt and pepper
      * 100ml very cold water

      Mix all dry ingredients. Just before adding to the Scouse, mix in enough cold water to make a rather sticky dough. Drop rounded teaspoonfuls into the boiling soup and continue as point 2.

      1. That was visually icky. Please stop?

    2. Would you like to extrapolate that point to your idiotic blitherings, Edward, you autofisting moron?

    3. Happy weekend reason!

      1. Happy weekend to you Suki. Hope its great.

    4. If he strapped them to a board facing the sign and taped their eyelids open, you would have a point.

      1. I side with the vandals. Howard was a self-important asshole.

        1. Max is an expert on being a self-important asshole.

    5. I agree. So-called “outsider art” is such a crock of shit. Howard was a crazy old fart who should have been locked up. Then civil liberty nannies would have a martyred moonbat instead of just one more moonbat.

  2. The moment in my life when it was hardest for me not to become a mad bomber was the one when I saw a slat from one of his signs for sale for about ten grand.

    1. I wonder when his stuff started going for that much. Probably not til after he died.

      1. So now’s the time to collect stuff by San Francisco’s “12 Galaxies” guy, Frank Chu. His stuff doesn’t have quite the patina, though.

        1. If he is about to die, I’m in. But this sounds like a Seinfeld episode or three.

          1. Oddly enough I’m eating Junior Mints right now..

            1. Kramer! I have been waiting for your comeback after blaming your heckler attack on Katrina!

      2. Is this the weekend open thread now?

    2. I can hook you up with all kinds of painted slats from southern Missouri. Bullet holes are extra.

      1. How do we know they are authentic bullet holes and not your handy hammer and spike work?

        1. They are authentic. They had to hit something 😉

          1. How authentic is Paul Krugman? I have been known to hit pristine targets with remarkable accuracy and skill!

      2. In St. Louis, they’re free (and unavoidable, it seems).

    3. I’ve been looking for a sundown town sign to steal. I’ve heard a few still exist in MO and other southern states.

      Given the circumstances I don’t feel too bad for stealing in this situation.

      1. Missouri is NOT a Southern State.It is in the Midwest. We do appreciate some of their citizens lending a hand in The War of Northern Aggression though.

        1. It’s a half breed. If you think it isn’t southern you need a ride through the Ozarks.

        2. If Missouri isn’t a southern state, all that means is that they don’t have any excuse for being the way they are. They’re in the same category as the Southern Tier of NYS and northern PA — a grisly category indeed.

          1. And exactly what “way” are we. You don’t know shit about Missouri. Fuck you.

            1. Seriously now.

              1. Having lived in STL a while I can confirm that there is often a high correlation between breathing and just plain stupid.

                The weather also sucks ass.

                1. I believe it was a St. Louisan that made the news with an anti-Obamacare sign.

                2. I’ll grant you, the weather does suck.

                  1. Missouri is not a Southern state, although some of the mouthbreathers inhabiting parts of it like to pretend it is.
                    And please note: describing the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression” marks one as an asshole, regardless of what state that person inhabits.

                    1. And those that use the phrase “please note” are fucktards, regardless of geographic location.

  3. 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.

    It’s a little Bill SeRGio, but I’ll take it.

    1. That sounds like a post from one of the Breitbart.com commentariat.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Jesse. I love the AVAM, and that looks like a great show.

  5. We had this sort of thing in upper Scottsdale (AZ) along Pima Road — I think the story was a guy who owned some land lost to the city council in a zoning dispute, so in reaction he put up a bunch of big homemade signs with the kind of statements you’d expect (i.e., some antigovernment, but mostly obscure or incoherent). Last time I was by there the signs were gone. I would have hoped someone would put up a sign explaining why the other signs were gone, but no dice.

    1. “The Stateists Won”

      1. There were constant motions in the city council to force him to take the signs down, but they never got enough votes while I was there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they finally got enough votes.

  6. Wow, thats some pretty cool stuff dude.


  7. In my home town, a guy named Spartacus Miller put signs up on the Padre Hotel, declaring “Corruption Rules Our Town” with a big rocket on the top supposedly pointed at City Hall. The recently renovated Padre is now a Bakersfield boutique hotel. Go figure.

    1. I remember seeing that sign in 1976 from the window of a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. I knew nothing about Bakersfield, but it certainly made an impression. Did things get better there?

  8. Howard reminds me of one of those “artists” Ayn Rand ruthlessly mocked in The Fountainhead:

    [Lois Cook] was the only famous member. The rest included a woman who never used capitals in her books, and a man who never used commas; a youth who had written a thousand-page novel without a single letter o…There was a boy who used no canvas, but did something with bird cages and metronomes, and another who discovered a new technique of painting: he blackened a sheet of paper and then painted with a rubber eraser.

    1. he blackened a sheet of paper and then painted with a rubber eraser.

      That sounds like it could be pretty good.

      Anyway, I don’t think Howard conceived of himself as a “artist,” unlike the people in Rand’s spoof. He made signs and gadgets, and because he’s an eccentric individualist his eccentric individualism shines through the stuff he made. His work is striking enough that other people eventually started calling it art and putting it in museums. And I’m glad they did; I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

      1. You’re probably right. “Crackpot” might be more fitting. The “artists” Rand savaged were part of a collective joke on society, and each of them knew it, as each of them knew his notoriety and success was dependent upon Toohey’s praise, such as it was. But they were too self-absorbed and delusional to penetrate the surface of Toohey’s ostensibly favorable reviews of their work. He knew they stunk, and they convinced themselves, at least for a moment or two, that they didn’t.

    2. Wait, gaius marius was in The Fountainhead?

      1. Oops, forgot to lick his blog

        1. You lick that blog.

          1. I think he actually meant lick. I went there but all I found were graphs.

            1. Lick is inadvertently clever.

              1. And it is patently wonderful provided the technique employed is top notch!

                1. You’ve got a smutty mind, Groovus MD. I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with your finger in my rectum.

                  1. The first thing I thought of, actually, was the frog/toad licking for the psychoactive substance they secrete, that was popular some time ago as a news story.

                    I wasn’t aware that Vulcans had prostate glands. Oh, that’s right, you’re half Vulcan! You really should embrace your human half more, Tulpa of Vulcan, and quit watching so much Family Guy. A positive self-image is healthy, but I think you flatter yourself too much. A prostate exam is a very dispassionate and routine procedure, my friend.

  9. You just can’t make up shit like this.

    Gov. David A. Paterson and legislative leaders have tentatively agreed to allow the state and municipalities to borrow nearly $6 billion to help them make their required annual payments to the state pension fund.

    And, in classic budgetary sleight-of-hand, they will borrow the money to make the payments to the pension fund ? from the same pension fund.
    [bold added]

    And yes, by accamation this is the weekend open thread.

    1. All threads are “open” on libertarian sites.

      1. This isn’t a libertarian site, it’s an oligarchic one, albeit with fairly tolerant oligarchs. Some of us got that rude awakening during the Draw Mohammed episode.

        1. You really should look that word up before you use it again.

          1. Considering the fact that it often takes just the first few comments by us unregistered and anonymous commentators to derail or hijack any given thread here–often with outrageous and offensive and obscene language–and with little threat of punishment, I’d call this place as open as it gets. There’s not a whiff of authoritarianism here. It’s more “anarchic” than “libertarian,” though some would say that that’s a distinction without a difference.

            1. I thought we were an autonomous collective

              1. You’re fooling yourself, we’re living in a dictatorship.

            2. ?, As open as it gets? Mohamed

              1. Where is Paul Krugman and Timmy Giethner? It seems easier finding a 16-year old floating in the sea.

          2. It’s not the state stopping people from doing something; therefore Tulpa has an issue with it.

            1. We’re not saying that the government should step in and regulate blog commentary, but, since the blogs use The People’s communications infrastructure, we hope that they will show Community Spirit by self-censoring their despicable and unwholesome and anti-family approach to excessive free speech. Or else.

          3. Why would he need to look up Mohammed?

  10. “I’m absolutely willing to take the difficult steps necessary to lower the cost of Medicare and put our budget on a more fiscally sustainable path,” he said. “But I’m not willing to do that by punishing hard-working physicians or the millions of Americans who count on Medicare.”



    1. “President Obama called Saturday for Congress to avert a planned 21 percent pay cut for doctors who see Medicare patients, saying the move was necessary to ensure the health of older Americans.”

      ‘Uh, well, we want folks to get health care through Medicare, so let’s cut the income of the providers! That should do it!’

      It is not possible to satirize the ignorance of the federal government.

      1. Recall that the cut was one of the ways they said they would “pay for” Obamacare. Nobody thought they’d go through with it, it was just another way to cook the books about the true cost.

    2. I’m absolutely committed to losing this extra weight I’ve been carrying around, but I refuse to do that by punishing the makers of the deep-fried pork rinds, ice cream, bacon and pastries that I love by refusing to buy them any longer.

    3. Yanno, the more this guy reveals himself for who and what he is, the closer I get to wanting to put this man in a rubber room with a straightjacket and a daily breakfast of Halcyon and Seroquel for dinner. I am now convinced our Passive-Agressive Sociopath-in-Chief is flat out insane. Simply insane and dissociated with reality. 2010 is here and 2012 can not get here soon enough.

  11. Oops, forgot to lick his blog

    “I think your some kind of deviated prevert. I think general Ripper found out about your preversion and that you were organizing some kind of mutiny of preverts.”

  12. For seven days, Robert Gleason Jr. begged correctional officers and counselors at Wallens Ridge State Prison to move his new cellmate. The constant singing, screaming and obnoxious behavior were too much, and Gleason knew he was ready to snap.

    On the eighth day ? May 8, 2009 ? correctional officers found 63-year-old Harvey Gray Watson Jr. bound, gagged, beaten and strangled. His death went unnoticed for 15 hours because correctional officers had falsified inmate counts at the high-security prison in southwestern Virginia.

    From here.

    Government employees – Ya gotta love ’em ’cause you sure as hell can’t fire them.

  13. Not your country’s best and brightest:


  14. Anyone here trying to watch the England/USA match while trying not to go mad with the incessant beehive-horn cacophony? Jesus H, Africa! And you want the world to think you are civilized? We get it! Enough already!

    1. I just put the television on mute and play a Leonard Cohen album while the match is on.

      1. I’ve got Chico Buarque and Tom Jobim cued up for the Brazil/Nork match, but I’ll be boiling stones for soup in honor of Kimmy’s team.

        1. I don’t watch much “football,” but I’ll say this: the absence of contrived time-outs and commercial breaks makes it a much more enjoyable experience than what the NFL has become. What a concept: they keep playing!

          1. I couldn’t agree more. What’s worse is being at one of those games and wonder why the fuck they aren’t playing, then suddenly realize they’re on a TV timeout.

            1. I went to an NHL game a while back. Same thing. Every few minutes the skaters would stop skating, the PA system would play the world’s worst music at ear-splitting volume while the PA announcer yelled something rendered unintelligible by the arena’s poor acoustics, then just as abruptly it would stop and play would begin again, as we patrons wondered, “What the hell just happened here?”

  15. Thanks for the tip. I love this shit.

  16. There’s a house in an Orlando suburb where the father was thrown out of the US Air Force, and he created a huge protest site out of the house. There was a large tower, several plaques recounting his version of why he was thrown out, and a giant flagpole which had a flag flying upside down.

    During the early 80’s he had several run-ins with the local cops, and he was not a favorite amongst his neighbors (it didn’t exactly help property values). He sounds like a more extreme version of the Missouri crank.

    AFAIK, none of his sign were ever recognized as art, although much of the protest site has been toned down in the intervening years.

  17. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

    1. Step off, bitch. this is my turf.



  18. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I have been sitting here with Meet the Press on in the background.

    Why- why, why, why, would ANYBODY associate themselves with that despicable scumbag David Axelrod?

    1. Because he’s our scumbag?

    2. Just caught the replay. Axelrod was even slimier than usual. He was BP oil-slick slimy.

  19. As I sit here and read all of the comments from June it is amazing to also sit here and listen to my father who is telling my husband and I his fond memories of his grandfather Jesse who was just a normal man that loved his family very much! I am proud to say that I come from a family of well spoken and educated people with a great grandfather who was not afraid to speak his mind!!!!

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