I was lucky enough to spend time with Bessie Harvey during the final year of her life-first in New Orleans, then again in New Jersey (in both instances she had traveled to attend major group exhibitions featuring her work), and finally at her home in Alcoa, Tennessee, about three months before she died. She was extremely sick, suffering from the illness that ended her life too soon, but her kindness, spiritual insight, and sense of inner strength made a strong impression on me. When she died, I made her into my own personal saint—I lit candles, and I dedicated an issue of a magazine I edited to her. But at this writing, nearly a year and a half after her death, I realize that I've been guilty of the very same starry-eyed romanticism that has consistently trivialized discussions of self-taught artists at the expense of achieving a real understanding of their work. Bessie Harvey was no saint, but instead an accomplished artist whose work has yet to receive the serious critical attention it deserves.
More so than their mainstream counterparts, self-taught artists are made to serve a variety of agendas that have little to do with their work. To be sure, this has been true in Harvey's case—for every art world spin, one can find a different, ready-made Bessie Harvey (or "Bessie," as she's referred to by curators and historians who would never dream of calling Louise Bourgeois "Louise" unless they knew her personally). In flipping through catalogs of exhibitions from the last decade or so, a number of disparate "Bessies" emerge: Bessie the folk artist, Bessie the eccentric outsider artist, Bessie the religious visionary, Bessie the consummate cultural Other, and of course, Bessie the beloved token self-taught minority, this last an amalgam of all the other Bessies put together (and several more) for the benefit of the larger art-viewing public-each identity coming complete with its own narrative, tailored to account for her life and work. These stories go something like this: Bessie the folk artist was born in 1929 in rural Georgia, married young, and had a large family, and began making dolls out of clay, wood, beads, shells, and feathers in order to pass her later years in rural Tennessee; Bessie the outsider artist suffered at the hands of an alcoholic mother and later an abusive husband, eventually saw "faces" everywhere she looked and was thereby compelled to make grotesque sculptures to ease her troubled mind; Bessie the religious visionary, born in the Deep South on the eve of the Great Depression, was blessed by God with a gift to see the world of spirits and to bring these visions to life in sculptures according to his divine will; Bessie the cultural Other, of both African American and Native American heritage, was an earthy voodoienne who made root sculptures in the Congo nkisi tradition to celebrate her ancestry; and finally, to construct the narrative for Bessie the token self-taught minority (available for inclusion in large mainstream group shows in need of diversity), simply combine all of the above.
Although these popular stereotypes work to misrepresent Harvey's life and work, each one—however distorted to spin an angle for the entertainment of a particular audience or market—contains a kernel of truth. Her upbringing was indeed southern rural, her life troubled and filled with abuse and hardship, her creative impulse primarily spiritual, her heritage a rich diasporic mixture. Yet to construct Harvey's identity from one or more of these nonart factors is to represent her oeuvre as an accidental, compulsive result of her life's circumstances, and not the product of her own creative response to them. The former perspective renders her Bessie the lovable victim; the latter, Harvey the formidable artist.
Of all the stereotypes that have been used to characterize Harvey's work, the one that must be salvaged and thoroughly rewritten is that of "visionary," an empty word with a misleadingly narrow valence unless qualified in the case of each individual artist it is used to describe. To simply reiterate Harvey's own definition of her artistic vision ("God is the artist in my work ...") in lieu of a considered critical analysis is irresponsible and inherently patronizing—an attitude that pervades even the most sincere attempts, by secular cynics and sympathetic clergy alike, to discuss the artwork of religious visionaries—and undermines the complex conceptual and aesthetic concerns that comprise it. Far from a sugar-coated psychosis, her vision must be recognized as a personal, theological, philosophical, social, and aesthetic world view, not something that happened to her, but a willful response to her life and culture. While the dark, contorted Beast from Revelation resulted from an interpretation of a New Testament text, works such as the ornate The Tribal Man (African King) and the colorful African Woman (Twella) represent Harvey's reclamation of her African heritage, determined by her strong personal belief in reincarnation. The powerful social commentary found in the bloody Slaughter of the Innocents is balanced in other pieces by flights of fancy. Yet all of these works belong to the same dynamic aesthetic process, a palpable give-and-take between intuition and calculation, spirit and intellect, faith and reason, nature and artifice, individual and culture, love and hate, God and Bessie Harvey. Edgy, risk-taking, sophisticated, and painfully unapologetic, Harvey's oeuvre, although easily contextualized within any number of narrow genres, must be recognized as a powerful contemporary statement.