1960 -

Mary Proctor

Tallahassee, Florida
About

I was born in 1960 in Jefferson County, Florida, outside Monticello in a place called Lloyd, about twenty miles from Tallahassee. My mother was Pauline Cooksey, and she bore me at about age eleven. She got pregnant and was afraid, and tried to hide it from my grandmother. But my grandmother knew, and kind of followed my mother around. My grandmother tells me she found me out beside a road in a little ditch. She picked me up, took me in, nourished me, and kept me as her child.

I was raised by my grandparents, a mixed-race couple. My grandmother was black; grandfather, white. He was like a farmer, grew stuff in the garden, sold a little fruit sometimes. I never saw him do too much. He was hated by his own peoples, but he was going to stick with his black woman. He stayed with her, stood through the test.

I never really knew my daddy. It was my understanding that he was an artist, and was painting pictures in the church, and my mama was walking by. He was from Thomasville, Georgia. I went to meet him a couple of years ago. He was supposed to wait for me, but he left He didn’t want nothing to do with me ’cause his family didn’t know about me. When I found them, they telling me, “You can’t be. My daddy wouldn’t have done this.” That was tough for me.

From when I was a little girl I wanted to preach. I was always preaching to everybody surrounding me. When I was born they removed a caul. That made me a special child, and my grandmother always said I would be called to do something. I was said to be the”caul baby.” They relied on what I say, know I had a special gift about me, insight. They had dog races in Monticello. I always had people coming wanting me to write a dog’s number down.

I went to school to ninth grade. I ended up getting pregnant by this guy. He wasn’t no good. I messed up. I just wouldn’t listen to my grandmama. My own mama kept on having babies, brought one in every year. My grandmother didn’t know what to do with all them children, and she was getting old. I got involved in taking care of four or five other kids. Then my granddaddy lost his land and got really sick and depressed. And then he died. My grandmother, she started really bad into alcohol. She was a good woman, she taught us values, but she had a rough time.

I found a good man, moved into Tallahassee when I was about seventeen, and married him, Tyrone Proctor. He became a fireman a year after we got married and he’s a captain for the fire department now. I was a nurse, stayed in the nursing field for ten years. Then I opened the Tender Loving Care Day Care Center. Did that for five years. I wanted to find something easier to do and started going along the side of the road, picking up stuff and taking it to the flea market. I decided to open my own place, called it “Noah’s Ark Flea Market.” I ran around town picking up everybody’s stuff that they throw away, and just piled it up here. People would come in and buy something for a dollar, two, three. Kept me going. I started collecting glass and dishes, and jewelry, buttons, beads, furniture, things that people would buy. I had maybe a whole block of stuff back there. I liked that, and I still like doing that.

I was running the flea market up till 1994. It was then my grandmother, aunt, and uncle all died in a house fire. All of them burnt to death. I had a vision right before that happened. Don’t nothing ever come that I don’t see it ahead of time. I was in a dream and saw smoke. I said to my husband, “I saw light going all the way up into heaven.There’s something going on.” My husband said, “Mary, go back to sleep.” And it was about the same hour they was burning to death. And that’s when the phone rang, and they told me to come, that they was gone. We got in the car and ran down there. The police and the ambulance was there. They was taking shovels and and throwing out legs and heads and bodies, and I was screaming and hollering, and looking at all that. And I shouldn’t have been looking.

I got really depressed, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I seen. I was thinking about suicide. I remember Grandmama used to say, “If you want an answer, there is such peace surrounding a tree.” I used to look for her, she always be under a tree. She say she believed Jesus dwelt there. So, I sat under that old oak tree to meditate and read the Bible and pray for an answer. I went on a fast for thirty days. On that thirtieth day, a beautiful light just shone. And I looked up, saw it shining in heaven, and I thought, Instead of taking my life, God’s fixing to come back here at me. And that beautiful light just came over my spirit and said to me, “Get a door and paint.” I already had a pile of doors there, and had paint, and I went and did it. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” And I was writing on them doors. And I was releasing myself. I painted things I could remember that my grandmother said to me. And I kept painting and painting until I filled the yard up. And my spirit was relieved of all my pain. The hurting was being taken away. The painting brought me through.

I started painting in 1995, and by ’96, I had so many paintings, I said, “Lord, why am I out here doing all this?” And in my spirit, the Lord spoke, and he said, “You are on a mission to get a great message out into the houses and hearts.” That’s why the “missionary” name came to me, because of my mission. I’m going to get a message out to broken womens, a message to help and glorify them. I’m going to get a message out so men can search their hearts, learn to respect us and treat us the right way. My husband gave me a quote: “If God ever made something better than a woman, he kept it for himself.”

My mission is just to paint it and get it out there. I come straight out with my art. My art talks straight up. My messages are the truth. I’m finding out that people don’t always like the truth. People that go to church every Sunday, they want to hear the truth? Naw. They just want to hear what fits their ears. That’s gotten me a little tight, people kind of attack me, ’cause I speak it out like it is. The truth, they say, will set us free. I got to paint it the way I feel, and if I change, people are going to know God didn’t tell me that. I could paint all the birds and cats I wanted to, but it ain’t me. Some people prefer you come out with something like a voodoo doll. One woman cam and wanted a red window. I tried to do it five times and finally said, “Forget this, they going to take what I got, or they don’t need it.” I refuse to let people change me. I started painting because of love and healing, and if things don’t go the way I think they should go, I’ll find another avenue.

 

Taken from interviews with Mary Proctor by William Arnett in 2001.

 

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.

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.