In the African-American South, over the course of three hundred years, there has evolved a highly sophisticated and abstract system of creative expression and cultural preservation. Operating in the woods, the cemeteries, the fields and churches, and in secrecy and privacy, this system gave rise to a cultural language that would ultimately become music such as gospel, blues, jazz, and rock n’ roll—now acknowledged to be perhaps the most popular and influential music in history.
The music could be heard, recorded, and transported. But there was also a system of visual arts, made by the same population for the same purposes, and qualitatively equal to the music, that was intentionally abstracted, symbolic, and metaphorical. This secret language of visual arts stayed hidden for centuries in the woods and in the cemeteries, places of privacy and safety. It was only when the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s began to provide African Americans with the freedom and security to express themselves publicly that the art came out into the open. It is now beginning to gain recognition as some of the most innovative and important art of modern times.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is dedicated to identifying, documenting, preserving, and promoting the visual art of the African-American South. We work closely with scholars, curators, educational institutions, and museums to produce groundbreaking exhibitions, books, documentary films, and educational publications. Our goal is to bring this vital and quintessentially American art form to a wider audience, to see its inclusion in the “real” American art dialogue, and ensure its recognition as one of the great American contributions to the history of art.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s roots can be traced to the mid-1980s, when William Arnett began to collect in earnest the artworks of self-taught African American artists in the southeastern United States. Having arrived at this region of interest after three decades of collecting in depth the art of many other civilizations—Chinese jade and porcelain, traditional sub-Saharan African art, pre-Columbian ceramics, art from the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East, the art of India and Southeast Asian art, among others—Arnett was convinced (against prevailing art-historical dogma at the time) that the so-called folk or outsider artists of the black American South were a coherent cultural movement and constituted a crucial chapter in world art. The sweeping changes affecting southern black life in the late twentieth century, especially those changes set in motion by the civil rights movement, radically energized the artists of the region and their long-suppressed voices. To Arnett, the art was significant both for historical and aesthetic reasons. He then began to document the artists in as much detail as possible and decided to create a collection that would serve as a permanent record and legacy of this cultural movement.
As the collection grew in size and breadth in the early 1990s, Arnett began the process of introducing the art into the “mainstream” cultural dialogue and arts institutions, museums, universities, and publishers. Gradually he realized that the factors that had helped make this genre unique, including its practitioners’ geographical separation from traditional centers of high culture, the artists’ unfamiliarity with the systems of art appreciation and consumption, as well as pervasive stereotypes and biases, left the institutional artworld profoundly ill-equipped to support these artists and the ideas their work embodied.
By the mid-1990s Arnett had conceived an ambitious project to introduce to a wide audience the full historical sweep of late-twentieth-century southern black vernacular art: an exhibition and two-volume book, titled Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, which was ultimately presented at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Since then, Tinwood Media and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation have played a pivotal role in bringing this cultural movement to a wider audience. Having published award-winning books The Quilts of Gee’s and Thornton Dial in the 21st Century and developed the exhibitions of the same name, The Souls Grown Deep Foundation has helped bring overdue exposure and recognition to southern African American artists who have toiled in obscurity for far too long. With numerous books and exhibitions on the horizon, the foundation will continue to change the way the world thinks about art and culture.
Phillip March Jones, Director
Phillip March Jones is an artist, writer, and curator. His most recent book, Points of Departure: Roadside Memorial Polaroids, was published in 2012. He is the founder and creative director of Institute 193, a nonprofit contemporary art space in Lexington, Kentucky.
Scott Browning, Associate Director
Scott Browning is a writer and multi-media artist whose work has appeared in The Believer, Esquire, and numerous national and international film festivals. He is the founder and former director of Hall Farm Center, an artist residency program in Townshend, Vermont, and the former chair of the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont.