1931 - 1988

Georgia Speller

Memphis, Tennessee

    Georgia Verges [Virgil] and Henry Speller met in the early sixties, married in 1979, and had a marriage that both described as “just about perfect.” She had learned to draw as a child but became actively involved in her art only after being encouraged by her husband. It was an important element of their life together. Often, they engaged in playful yet serious competition, drawing the same subjects and comparing results. “I ain’t near as good as Henry,” was her assessment. “She done come to be a whole lot better than me” was his.


    Georgia Speller grew up the daughter of a blacksmith in Aberdeen, a town in northeastern Mississippi, and her art frequently retains memories of a happy childhood there. But she clearly enjoys herself most when creating outrageously erotic, orgiastic scenes—imaginary, she insists—which presumably go on around the clock (the sun and the moon often appear overhead at the same time). Women are never subservient in these tableaux. They may menace; they often dominate. Music is significant. She shows dancers who line up or join hands in a circle. Singers serenade. Guitar players provide rhythmic accompaniment.


    By her own reckoning, Georgia Speller experienced far less disappointment in life than did her husband. Yet she was as aware as Henry Speller of the social position in which they were both trapped, with no reasonable expectation of escape. With poignancy, but without self-pity, she describes her feelings in House Up On the Hill, Off of the Highway, which shows a fancy house, a well-dressed couple, and airplane. All of these were unapproachable for Georgia Speller—they were up on the hill, off of the highway, out of reach. Henry Speller remembers: “We sit on the porch in the summer drawing pictures and making music. I made me up a song once. Georgie had a round piece of wood, made a drum and beat on it. One night, her mama’s spirit come to her, told her she’d be coming. She told me, ‘Mama come to me in a dream. I won’t be out here next summer.”

    William Speller, her stepson, says that “Georgia accepted things, and she didn’t see no need to complain because she could enjoy what she had. She didn’t have too much, you know, but Daddy and her knew how to get by.”

    My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South

    My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South

    A new consideration of extraordinary art created by self-taught Black artists during the mid-20th century​. My Soul Has Grown Deep considers the art-historical significance of self-taught Black artists, many working under conditions of poverty and isolation, in the American South. It features paintings and drawings, mixed-media and sculptural works, and quilts, including pieces ranging from the pioneering paintings of Thornton Dial (1928–2016) to the renowned quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    "When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South" queries the category of "outsider" art in relation to contemporary art and black life. The catalogue includes entries by Thomas J. Lax, along with leading scholars Horace Ballard, Katherine Jentleson, Scott Romine and Lowery Stokes Sims, who write on notions of spirituality, the ethics of self-taught art and the idea of the South in the American project.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

    The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Royal Academy of Arts
    March 17, 2023 to June 18, 2023
    For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces that articulate America’s painful past – the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, and institutionalised racism. Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers brings together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, most of which will be seen in the UK and Europe for the first time. It will also feature the celebrated quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the neighbouring communities of Rehoboth and Alberta.
    Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

    Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

    National Gallery of Art
    September 18, 2022 to March 26, 2023

    In 2020, the National Gallery acquired 40 sculptures, assemblages, paintings, reliefs, quilts, and drawings from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, and several related gifts have recently entered the collection as well. Enjoy these inventive works, including nine Gee’s Bend quilts, and learn the remarkable stories of their making and makers.

    Living Legacies: Art of the African American South

    Living Legacies: Art of the African American South

    Toledo Museum of Art
    January 15, 2022 to May 1, 2022

    A landmark exhibition organized by the Toledo Museum of Art will present the museum’s recent acquisitions of major works by African American artists from the southern United States. Living Legacies: Art of the African American South features 24 works, from large-scale assemblages and mixed media sculptures to paintings, textiles, and works on paper acquired from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

    In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art

    In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art

    Minneapolis Institute of Art
    December 12, 2020 to December 5, 2021

    In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art” brings together methods of visual storytelling and ancestral memory through the individual practices of artists from the “Black Belt” region of the American South—a term that refers to the region’s black soil, as well as the le

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South

    The Studio Museum in Harlem
    March 27, 2014 to June 29, 2014

    "When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South" queries the category of “outsider” art in relation to contemporary art and black life. With the majority of work having been made between 1964 and 2014, the exhibition brings together a group of thirty-five intergenerational American artists who share an interest in the U.S. South as a location both real and imagined.

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

    Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
    June 29 - November 3, 1996
    "Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.

    Folk Theory: Laughing with Legba

    Xenia Zed

    I think where I cannot say that I am.

    —Jacques Lacan

    Author's note: I ran into Georgia Speller's work back before criticism came to visit folk art and made a nest there. I was instantly mesmerized by her candor and have remained so.

    To what extent does the Other recognize itself as being such? In the context of Other, it is "they" who think how I am. "They" designate. By the very designation, a distinction grows between the "them" and the "us." If there is one thing that the discourse on "the definition of the folk and their art" illustrates, it is the acceleration of the colonizing pathos of Western culture in its attempt to stabilize the determinates of folk nomenclature.

    From the point of view of the so-designated outsider, Other is rarely the equivalent of inferior, dominated, or colonized, except when it is defined as such by a self-proclaimed hegemony. In the physical detritus of domination and colonization (the assertion of authoritarian power), thankfully there persists the rich cultural residue of the oppressed. Even through the process of homogenization, this residue is not and can never be completely eradicated. While it is based in heterogeneity, homogenization becomes something else through the willing participation of some members of the group, regardless of its painful source.

    Everyone who nominally began to collect folk art as it came to be defined around 1982 (and the definition then became something other than the existing folkloric definitions) began as an amateur, because there were no refined or specialized definitions of this new expansion of what signified "folk." Everyone began as an amateur when it came to the appreciation of folk, outsider, self-taught, art—however these artists have come to be defined. Those who became obsessed with their fascination with the self-taught became collector/dealers or chronicler/critics of the "new" field. And most of them are coming to accept that the label "self-taught" does nothing more than to signify a shift of theoretical gears in broadening our understanding of this field, a field that decries the lie that all artists have endured—perceived separation from societal standards.

    While certainly there are dangers inherent in cross-cultural criticism, there are also advantages in the ensuing relationships formed between the observer and the observed; especially, it seems, when the point of view expressed is not from the center, whatever the center may represent in any given construct. Georgia Speller, more than many artists, contributes to the above by her astounding candor and her distinct positing of herself as observer, social commentator, and voyeur.

    Georgia Speller's art represents the organizing principle of all that is wrong with how we come to categorize and characterize, and even more important, how we place an act of creativity within the construct of art, an increasingly anemic site for analysis and comprehension of human expression.

    When art critic Dan Cameron asserts in Art & Auction that distinctions among social factions regarding art practice are approaching insignificance, his insight forever revises this curious typecasting of all artists. Maybe the so-characterized "vernacular" conjecture of certain types of art making such as folk, outsider, insane, penal, etc., is a necessary step in determining the intellectual evolution of history; just as the accretion of consensus necessary for a critical mass is the prelude to requisite analysis of an art heretofore devoid of theory.

    In his essay "From Domination to Desire," Metcalf brings to bear on the outsider knot the fascinating theory of sociologist Dan MacCannell on tourism:

    In such a world, tourism has developed as a primary preoccupation of the middle class. A central ritual in modern, technological societies where leisure is displacing work as a means of self-identity, where experience seems fragmented and discontinuous, and where the individual often feels atomized and disconnected from previously sustaining traditional institutions and relationships, tourism has become a way of attempting to reconnect the now seemingly disparate and unrelated pieces of modern experience.

    The social activity which supports Outsider Art can be illuminated by considering it in terms of MacCannell's model of tourism. Yet it is not just other people and places that are touristically experienced. As MacCannell mentions, both history and tradition have become tourist attractions as the past and earlier lifestyles are scavenged and pieced together as antidotes to, and measures of, the present. In this perspective, one can suggest that through celebrating and viewing Outsider Art, some of its proponents may touristically journey, if only emotionally, to what they perceive as the farthest and most exotic reaches of human experience.

    In an earlier passage, Metcalf describes the binary aspects of Other in which opposing boundaries are defined through the location of its opposite: "'primitive' and 'outside' can exist only in binary terms; each implies, and determines the boundaries of, its opposite.'"

    Let's posit in binary fashion that the opposite is also true, meaning that the "outsider" also tours beyond the familiar habitat through various acts, one of which is the act of creating. Consider economic class as an example: Is it possible to know anything about the working-class poor or the underclass, since they are always framed demographically by institutions? This returns us to the art of Georgia Speller not coincidentally but precisely at the time when such speculation is ripe for deliberation. Her work becomes one fascinating example because of her social insights. The subject matter more than the formal devices she uses to depict content, rivet us to the question of context and meaning. Her work transcends the boundaries of social (read economic, in the late twentieth century) class. Georgia tours, and takes us on a tour of, not nostalgic realms of fantasized nonmodern landscapes as Metcalf via MacCannell would have us believe, but a tour of a real, but always to the tourist, hybrid social perspective—another point of view from our own-the point of view of the other, which is the reason we all tour in the first place whether in our minds (internal projecting outward) or in physical space (external projecting inward).

    The notion of tourism travels back and forth across ethnic, racial, economic, sexual, religious-collectively cultural—boundaries. It is key to understanding what captivates us beyond the formal qualities of the self-taught (for grievous lack of a better term). MacCannell's model of tourism is not limited to a particular socioeconomic class but flows both ways. As a model it shuns the black/white hegemonizing thing that gets humans stuck so often. It locates the vulnerable amateur in us and the voyeuristic tendencies among us.

    Tourism's versatility in this regard is invaluable, since it also demonstrates how mercurial the readings of, and emphases upon, desires and interests in particular subject and place are. Consider the souvenir, the symbol, the collectible, the artifact, the residual . . . the object transformed . . . a traditional construct from the Western viewpoint: art for art's sake, in and of itself, devoid of the practical (utility) that dissects how various observations and subsequent histories have formed (and changed). It would be wonderful to hypothesize as to how Western culture might be in the absence of curio or antiquity cabinets. How would things have been framed in the absence of such an acquisitive, basic yet abstract, human practice as collecting? Collecting as has repeatedly been demonstrated, evolves (or devolves) in every dimension, especially in the redress and subsequent reparations of various histories made from the dominant or master perspective.

    What is it about Georgia Speller's work that makes it so remarkable? Her line quality contains a curious dulled 2B pencil intensity that recalls the delight of one's first encounter with art materials in Sunday school, day care, or elementary school. Her vivid color schema stimulates the same type of memory, as her paints are primarily of primary and fluorescent tempera. Her line structure is fascinating in the way she uses it to build familiar forms on the page. While these qualities are of significant interest, this assessment of the formal is familiar. Instead, it is the curiosity, investigativeness, and the ability of her work to mirror that mesmerizes. All her art is a tour of social mediation, and within that realm, it is her sexual candor that disturbs yet attracts. She casts a strong light onto themes of domination, the assertion of power and of authority. She is observer, social commentator extraordinaire, trickster, tourist, voyeur. She is in control. How did Georgia come to direct her attention to the sex scenes she depicted? They can be read from so many perspectives: the revisionist feminist of the nineties; the sexual liberations of the sixties and seventies; the romantic/erotic/ pornographic gaze; the symbolic that can range from thoughts on African retention to psychoanalysis. Did she envision these works at a time when there was new emphasis on sexual freedom? When the tenor of the times allowed women to admit to and erect sexual fantasies more openly? Was Georgia a sex radical?

    Examining the history of pornography strips away the notion of reality itself as a totality—a familiar reality—only to divulge the fact that there is no one. "Folk Art," does the same thing. Folk brings us closer and closer to different views of familiar (what have become generic) realities, and has become a great magnifier that sparks critical fires in the mainstream. The ensuing critique uncovers extraordinary moments of clarity, even if the shelf life is brief. As various realities converge (tourism), a lucidity is revealed in that moment and a new mass is defined. We learn from the mutations.

    Georgia's work has been treated in somewhat formal manner here for many reasons: one reason is in the "folk" quagmire, where she has been regarded as a "secondary player." This will change as an understanding of her work brings the interstices between "folk" and "fine" to closure. As with all explorations, defining the path you choose to take is a perilous journey. The first path is exciting but usually not the only one that is made.