1938 -

Betty Avery

Atlanta, Georgia
About

I was born in Bremen, Georgia, in 1938; raised in Cobb County, in Marietta. My daddy was a farmer—cotton and corn—a regular farmer. I got married in ’65 to Billy McMickens. He got me interested in collecting things, little statues and stuff at Treasure Island and places.

I been in this house in southwest Atlanta since the ’70s, off and on. My mother bought here in ’75. I was living in Canton, Georgia, with my husband—he had a job at the post office—then we moved in with her. Later on we moved back to Canton, but I came here again.

I like to cook, things like that, and I did since I was young, from a teenager. And I take care of white children. What I used to be, they called it a “maid.” Cooking was my art. I always beautified cooking. I decorated my food. I always had a eye for color. And when I fix a plate, I put my lettuce on there, my tomatoes, my pickle, put my starch there, the meat, according to color, and I take and put each thing by how it look, you know. And when I fix trays for funerals, I decorate them, and people talk about it for years and years. They still talk about the trays of food I used to decorate.

I decided to decorate the yard when the driveway got torn up. My nephew, he said he was going to fix me a extra driveway out here to park my car in (we been parking on the grass). He have started it and he didn’t finish it. We had all this cement sticking up. This guy came from Cuba, and he didn’t have nowhere to live so I let him stay here for free, and so he took and he dug the driveway up and he took it up to the street. And the garbage man didn’t take it—the rocks, the cement, and stuff.

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So my husband had rolled a tree stump up here. We used to have flowers in it. He put green pinwheels in there. So when the garbageman didn’t take that stuff I put it around the tree stump. I said it ain’t got no color, so I got me some paint and painted it. Now, I walk around in the house and be moving fast, and moving mirrors around—you can see I use a lot of mirrors—and I knock them over. And I don’t throw them away, ’cause I don’t throw nothing away too much. And I put them around the tree stump. That’s how that got started.

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Then I built up the other one, that big sculpture. I put anything I couldn’t use, and that it shine, I put it in there. Even the flamingos. They lost the legs. I couldn’t fix them up, so I just stick them in there. Basically, it was just stuff that broke and I didn’t want to throw away, and couldn’t use otherwise. My lamp got broke, I just took it, added color, put it on there. I even used painted tiles. And basically the reason I put those things around the edge of the house was when the shrubbery had died, I wanted the house wouldn’t look so bare.

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My yard have always attracted a lot of attention, all kinds. They picked on me bad, but I’m a strong person and I didn’t feel too bad. They call me the “root lady.” They call me the “mirror lady.” They call me everything but a child of God. They come by, want to pay me money to tell their fortune. People was stopping by here, say, “You’re a witch.” People meet me say, “I been coming by your house two or three years, I been scared to stop by.” I say, “I was scared you was going to stop by.” You see, it would have been detrimental to me if the wrong person had stopped.

They had been upset with me around here a long time. You see, I’m a person who does the thing she wants to do, and if it’s right, I’m going to do it and you can’t change my mind. Those people just didn’t have the patience or the time to understand, or they wouldn’t have bothered me, ’cause I don’t bother people. I wasn’t trying to impress other people. I was just doing something. And they knew, but didn’t, couldn’t, understand. It’s like my mother used to say—she was a schoolteacher—”You can’t educate a fool.” One other thing she told me: “If you can’t use your head you can always use your hands.”

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They sent a notice from the City, saying we had to move all the stuff out of the yard. They didn't say the neighbors complain, but later the man in charge of having neighborhood meetings at the library say to me, "Now your house got to look like everybody else." He was always nice, but turned out two-faced. So the yard is empty now, and I had to scrape all the paint off the house. It hurt my ego in a way, 'cause it wasn't bothering anybody. I don't bother people. I don't go anywhere. I had to stay here for so many years taking care of my aunt. It kept me occupied creating something. It hurt my ego more than it did anything else when I had to take the yard down. But then I went to spending more time working on the inside of the house. Like today, I've been up since four o'clock this morning putting up new pictures.

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Lot of people liked that yard and give me their theory. They was telling me about it. I got a education really, from people. I never dreamed some rocks and cement would put me at the focus.

I was out there to create something—but I really wasn't. You understand what I mean? And it brought me fame.

People came by here from all over the world, say, "You're not from here, are you?" They thought I must come from some other country. But I ain't never been anywhere. Been right here.

Taken from an interview with Betty Avery by William Arnett in 2001.

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After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Alabama produced an impressive number of African American self-taught artists whose work particularly focused on the Civil Rights Movement and on aspects of history that led to it. This happened, in part, because the action was right on their doorsteps: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma March, the murder of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was a spontaneous response to an emerging opportunity, and it occurred all over the South.
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