Representing the largest and foremost collection of works of African American artists from the Southern United States, Souls Grown Deep Foundation advocates for the contributions of these artists in the canon of American art history. Over several generations, the 160 artists represented in SGD’s collection have endured more hardship than most other artists in America. Their creativity was forged in circumstances that would defy the imagination of the art world’s gatekeepers. Persistent poverty—resulting in unheated, dilapidated homes or trailers with no septic tanks. No hope of dignified employment in settings that hamper routine commerce on dirt roads. Racism, resulting in voter suppression, lack of representation in government, and exclusion from the most basic features of American citizenship. And no access to formal education. This last condition—the lack of access to a system of public education—meant of course that the artists of the Deep South expressed themselves without the benefit of instruction in the visual arts.
But some of America’s most renowned white artists outside of the South also made their mark without formal art education. Andrew Wyeth studied under his father, just as generations of quiltmakers in Gee’s Bend did under their mothers. Indeed, one need only look at the rich familial artistic legacy of Thornton Dial as carried on by his sons, Thornton, Jr. and Richard, who benefited from the tutelage of their father. But Wyeth was white and middle class. And as soon as his work found its way into market favor, he was called an artist. Not a “self-taught” artist. Six of the ten most commercially successful artists in a 2016 artnet survey lack an MFA. All six are white. And not one of them is called “self-taught.”
The same may be said of artists from the Renaissance onwards. They apprenticed in workshops. There was no formal credentialing. At 15, Leonardo da Vinci became an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio and in the next-door workshop of artist Antonio Pollaiuolo.
The persistent reference to African American artists as “self-taught” emanates from a market-driven bias against artists of color.
The artists represented in the Souls Grown Deep collection do not need an epithet to explain their virtuosity. These are artists, as were Black jazz and blues musicians, who were the wellspring of modern and contemporary music. We don’t call these musicians self-taught, even though they didn’t receive formal training in conservatories and lacked representation in the entertainment industry.
In light of the history and circumstances cited above, Souls Grown Deep abjures the application of the term “self-taught”—along with “outsider”, and “visionary”—to the artists from our collection.