1943 -

Joe Minter

Birmingham, Alabama

    My name is Joe Wade Minter Sr. I was born March 28, 1943, Birmingham, Alabama, the eighth child of ten children.

    My father was Mr. Lawrence Dunbar Minter. He was born April 2, 1893, and died November 29, 1959. His place of birth was Selma, Alabama. He was in the 366th Infantry, World War I, France. God gave my father the gift of mechanics. He was very skilled at his job. After his discharge from the army, he could not use his skill in Birmingham because of racism, Jim Crow laws, discrimination, segregation, and apartheid. He was forced to take a job as a caretaker in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham to feed his family. He worked there for thirty years, working outdoors in all types of weather. God was with him, my father. God has been with all of the African families in America. God will deliver us on time. Thank you, God. My father had ten children. He worked until his death to make a way for us.

    My mother is Mrs. Rosie McAlpin Minter, born January 6, 1904. Her place of birth is Greensboro, Alabama. Mother of ten African children in Birmingham. My mother is an angel from God, the sweetest human being on earth, a mother that gave her children all that God gave her to give to them. She gives love from her heart, and love is returned to her from everyone that comes into her presence. That is the African way: God, love, peace. She gave us mother wit, and common sense, and a verse that the whole world shall live by—the Golden Rule. Out of ten children, eight of us survived. We lost two sisters—twins—as babies before I was born. Two more sisters were born after me, which completes the family of eight—five sisters, three brothers. All that my mother had to bring us up was God, my father, her hands, little food, and clothes that were hand-me-down. She gave us all the food and at times ate nothing herself. God has blessed her and her children.

    I went to Washington Elementary School for four years. Each teacher was good to all the children. They gave us ABCs; writing; arithmetic; reading; the Golden Rule; devotion; and that they loved us, God loved us, and we was important as human beings. In the fourth grade, 1954, I transferred to Center Street Elementary, and I graduated in 1957. In the African schools in Birmingham, the books was hand-me-down from the white school. The books was in bad shape—pages torn out, black marks over lines in books. With all of this, the African teachers still put out a well-qualified student that know who he was and where he was going. God was with us.

    My loving wife, Hilda Jo Patrick Minter, was born December 3, 1946, in Lamar, Alabama. We was united together by God on February 25, 1969. Blessed by God to be together for thirty years. Thank you, God, for giving me a loving, sweet, strong, hardworking, understanding, and precious African woman, a devoted mother to our two sons. My wife is a good woman, and she made me a good man. If I was down, she lifted me up. I love her very much. She asks for just a little, but if I had the world and it would make her happy, I would give it to her.

    I had to learn a lot of jobs through the years. I started off after high school as a dishwasher at a drive-in restaurant and anything else that they make you do extra. Had to take leftover meat and grind it up for hamburger patties. Clean up the floor. Anything they need, after you finish your job you do it extra. It was a seven-day-a-week job, ten hours a day, take home nineteen dollars a week. That was 1961 to 1963. I left to become a messenger at University Hospital in Birmingham. We delivered supplies from the warehouse to each department in the hospital. I did extra work in the emergency room on weekends as an orderly. The job was to prep up the people that come all tore or cut up, get them ready for the doctor.

    I had to go get my driver’s license in ’63. I had bought a ’53 Plymouth from my brother with money I saved. I had to have a driver’s license to go to work in the car. That was in Bull Connor’s day. They had this big patrolman, big, chewing tobacco and loaded down with pistols, calling me “Boy,” telling me “crank up, go forward, turn here, there. . . .” I went about three blocks and he say, “Whoa, Boy, turn around. Go back. You’re speeding.” I was doing twenty miles an hour if I was doing that. I did a lot of work to learn everything about the driving test, and they said I flunked. It was very rough back then.

    I was drafted into the army in 1965. I went through basic training in South Carolina, and “mech and tech” school in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, a six-month course to learn to operate generators. I made it from buck private to “Spec Four” and operated generators in South Carolina, Missouri, and Texas. I was discharged in 1967.

    All three of my mother’s sons served in the defending of America in the U.S. Army. We have joined a long line of Africans that have put their life on the line to come back to America and be treated as less than a human being. We as Africans have given America all that we can give, but there is no love in America for the African. God will have to judge America, for man’s heart has hardened in America. May the Lord have mercy on America.

    I worked in metal for the next eleven years. I made school furniture, exercise equipment, truck beds, and worked at tearing down old vehicles and rebuilding them into milk trucks. I have also did paint-and-body work on automobiles. I have been on work crews to build roads, and have put up signboards on the side of the road. I also did about everything that could be worked at in construction.

    But my body had started to go bad. My eyes wasn’t no good anymore. I had got asbestos dust in my eyes back in the ’60s and’70s. They operated on one of them and wanted to do the other one but I wouldn’t let them. It’s like salt and sand in that eye all the time. I got glaucoma and there ain’t no cure for it. So I finally had to come off work.

    Back in 1979 the company I was working for closed down, and I started wandering around. I had a lot of little jobs here and there, but nothing to stay with, and I knew I had to regroup, find a way to go on with my life. I looked around me and saw so much trouble in the world, so much suffering among my people. I was living in a place that looks upon Africans as less than a human being. My African ancestors built America on the sweat of their backs, in their blood, in their life—free slave labor—and the only pay is death. I saw how the races was drifting further and further apart and how black people ourselves was drifting apart. And I asked God to help me find a way that I could help bring people together as one, for understanding, even for the littlest child. Because America had started to lose the family, and when the family is lost, that is the end of all of us here as a people.

    And it finally came back to me that the only way was through art, art is the universal thing. Make the art and put a message with it that could heal the wounds everywhere. Communicate to the world a message of God—love and peace for all. I then took on the name “Peacemaker.”

    When I heard that Birmingham was going to build a civil rights museum, that gave me what you call a stepping stone. From what I was hearing, the main players in the freedom struggle, the foot soldiers, was left out of the story. We need the leaders, but without the foot soldiers, the struggle and fight can’t be won. But where is the recognition for the soldiers?

    And I thought about the journey we have made through America for four hundred years. God gave me the vision of art, to link that four-hundred-years journey of Africans in America, link that truth to the children who are turning away from us, and I decided to name it the “African Village in America.” It tries to tell the story of that life we have spent here.

    The whole idea handed down to me by God is to use that which has been discarded, just as we as a people have been discarded made invisible. That what is invisible, thrown away, could be made into something so it demonstrates that even what gets thrown away, with a spirit in it can survive and grow. A spirit of all the people that has touched and felt that material has stayed in the material. God supplies me with what is needed, what other people throw away as junk, what I find on streets, and in flea markets, outlet stores, Goodwill, Salvation Army. God gives me the messages to go on the art, in the African Village in America. Thank you, God, for the faith and vision, and the dream to be a worker in this vineyard built by your hand, in love and peace, to open thy children’s eyes.

    Since about ’92 or ’93 I also been making pieces about art, about subjects I want to express. I got this idea of what you could call “pacifying” people with pieces I put together that are not intended for my African Village. I put together what are “message pieces,” ideas I get that relate to the ideas in the yard but don’t belong in the yard—ideas about life, about people relating to other people, and about nature.

    I been thinking about where art come from. I say it is a gift of God, going back to Genesis, in the beginning, when God created heaven and earth. God was the first artist. Genesis 1:16: God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars, also. Genesis 1:31: God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

    I thank God for giving man the gifts for art. Without art, children have no dream into the future.

    Art is the one way man can have a common thread that would connect the hearts of all people. Art is for universal understanding. There is no “insider” or “outsider” art, because art is one. All that we know, all that we have been, can be explained in art.

    We as people of Africa have a story to tell about a journey of four hundred years here in America. Kidnapped from the motherland of Africa, placed in chains and shackles, uprooted from family into slavery. Fifty-four thousand shiploads of men, women, children—three hundred packed into the bottom of a ship for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to America. Of one hundred million African people taken into the Western Hemisphere, seventy-five million missing—only twenty-five million made it alive in the Middle Passage to America. What happened to the seventy-five million missing Africans?

    God created all men equal. The American Declaration of Independence, passed by Congress July 4, 1776, states that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America by the hand of John Hancock. How was slavery allowed in a great country like America, with such powerful words and a belief in God? My African ancestors that made it to the shores of America was royalty—kings and queens—and tradesmen, skilled craftsmen, artists, farmers. The Africans had a high-culture society and a very complex civilization. The African culture is over seven thousand years old. The Nubian people of Egypt: Where civilization began. Timbuktu of the Kingdom of Mali, with its university and scholars: A city of wisdom.

    Africa have one to two thousand different dialects and languages. All of this was taken from our African ancestors at the shores of America. We was forced in chains and shackles and naked, with nothing but God to protect us and deliver us from this agony, misery, and death. We had to learn the language of our oppressor. We had to learn the culture of our oppressor. In this we lost our African language, our culture, our family, our comb for our hair, our drum for our communication. We lost our pride and dignity. We became the property of our oppressor, denied human rights for over four hundred years, treated in America like an animal, not as an African, a human being, a brother or sister, or a child of God.

    But we Africans are going to make it in America and become full Americans, by the will of God and by giving our best work, each one of us. I give my art and the messages that go with it. Another person give labor, or the preparation of food, or writing, or the teaching of little children. God instruct us not to quit, not to break. To survive is to win, you know. An old oak tree don’t die, you know. It bends to show its strength. Each bend that you see, if you could look inside it you could see what it went through. The last got to bend to the end.

    We are a beautiful race that cannot be ignored. We have went through tribulation, but from that experience we learn patience and develop the strength of hope. When you take all the fruit off a tree, and there’s one piece left, it is the sweetest piece because it have been through the most to survive. If God choose to bring us along last, we will come last. Something have to come last, to be the best.

    I look at our book Souls Grown Deep now, the book that tells our story, a story that cannot be buried now, and I understand the role that me and every other African art maker play. We are like individual drops of water. Everything got to start with a drop of water. A river got to start with a drop of water. You know how a river do, don’t you? When it make its mind up, ain’t nothing going to stop it, don’t make no difference what gets put in the way. Once that river starts to flow, it will go all the way down to the sea. Our river is starting to flow now.

    Taken from interviews and correspondence with Joe Minter by William Arnett in 1998-2001.

    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.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

    History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African American Art of Alabama

    History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African American Art of Alabama

    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.
    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.

    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

    History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift

    History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    May 22 - September 23, 2018

    This exhibition will present 30 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists to celebrate the 2014 gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art of works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    de Young Museum
    June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

    "Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

    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.

    Joe Minter's African Village in America

    Joe Minter's African Village in America

    Paul Arnett

    In 1989, amid his city's plans to build a civil rights museum, Joe Minter began to transform his land abutting a cemetery into a "second" or shadow memorial to the history of black people in America. Many dozens of artworks have subsequently been given life there. Traditional types of African American "yard arts" are greatly in evidence, rewrought by Minter into blistering political and social critiques, as in Earth Movers, a welded-metal sculpture made of rusting tools and farm implements that honors the laborers of past generations. This sculpture looks similar to many others in front of rural homes, black and white, throughout the South, yet Minter's piece manifests other meanings, some of which are to be apprehended through its resemblance to an iron tree of life and a scale of justice.

    Joe Minter's site poses larger questions about the nature of art. Should art's role be to criticize or to affirm? To describe/document what exists or to imagine alternatives? To address itself locally or universally? These are never simple dichotomies; among the vast pool of signs and sign systems in our world, the specific groupings knowable as "art" invariably elude attempts to encapsulate their meanings. Minter's Slave Fork Used in Africa, as one example among many, embraces the spectrum of possibilities in each of these questions. Strongly committed to African American unity, he nevertheless recognizes that when considerations of race supplant a broader sense of self, there is a tendency to demonize others. The deeply religious Minter is also agnostic and often skeptical about the effects of religious motives on human actions. To begin to understand his yard means plunging into a host of other specific traditions that directly participate in it: the nature, materials, and themes of African American "yard art" and "yard shows"; the importance of burial traditions; the mythic significance of the striving for literacy; the role of iron and steel in the social history of central Alabama; the legacy of interracial violence in Birmingham; the forms and content of ecclesiastical signs; lay preaching; liberation theologies; and the influence of global communication that the satellite dish epitomizes.

    Joe Minter is a working-class African American, a former construction worker with limited formal education and virtually no direct contacts with fine art. His sociological and educational status lands him, and many African American artists, in an art-historical category populated by "folk" or "outsider" artists of all stripes. His art fits uneasily into these bins, for in many respects it seems more attuned to definitions of contemporary art. His art is socially engaged. It is often conceptual. It evinces a clear approach to the idea of the past, the present, and the future. It is intentionally and symbolically site-specific. It is committed to a community. It blurs genres through its open-ended approach to materials and influences and its mixing of written texts, found materials, and natural formations (especially garden plants and trees).

    One more thing about Joe Minter: In ten years of doing what he does (at least as of this writing in 2000), his artworks have never been exhibited anywhere, museum or gallery. He has never been written about (notwithstanding stories in local publications) in journals of folklore, African American art, or contemporary art. He has never received any grant, public support, or official recognition. He neither seeks nor avoids the public eye. As a consequence of the discrepancy between the nature of their art and the sociological status assigned to them, Joe Minter and many like him have lived without outside interest, study, or patronage for much, most, or all of their lives. Their art reminds and chastens us that in a (presti-) digital age, as proliferating information becomes the medium of First World existence, and when popular interest in American folk art is exploding to a degree that seems to leave little unknown, much in truth remains to be understood. We would like to believe that no civilization could still exist, and produce art of historical value, without being known in full. Nevertheless, at least one civilization does remain substantially unknown, and this civilization suffers great imbalance between what it has done and what it has been given credit for doing.