Mary Tillman was the third of thirteen children born to a sharecropping family in Copiah County, southern Mississippi. According to her family, she was unusually intelligent, despite a lifelong hearing impairment which made her speech difficult to understand. At an early age she found an outlet in drawing. Her younger sister, Elizabeth remembered, “When the rest of us were doing hopscotch, Mary would get on the ground somewhere else and draw pictures in the dirt and write funny things by the pictures.”
In her thirties, after a brief marriage to a sharecropper named John Smith, she settled in Hazlehurst, where she worked as a domestic servant. There she had her only child, by another man. He built a house for her on the main road and she lived independently. Her first significant environmental work of art was a sculptural fence, made of hand cut whitewashed corrugated tin, which she erected along the roadside.
Around 1978, Mary Smith gradually began to fill her one acre yard with intensely bold art to compete for attention with the billboards next to her property. With equal measure of purpose, intuition and compulsion she set about designing her space to incorporate both abstract and functional structures. She composed a myriad of abstract expressionist paintings of varying subjects, including biblical gatherings, Jesus, the Christian Trinity, local people, family, animals and trees. All were painted on corrugated tin hand cut with an axe, or else on wood. She also created several large figurative mixed media sculptures which she carefully placed with deft improvisational sense. By the early 1980’s, she had transformed her yard into a profound vernacular art environment.
Smith is a worthy American abstract expressionist painter. Though at the moment her work is virtually unknown outside of the field of Self-taught Art. She was born in the same month as Isamu Noguchi and Clyfford Still, and in the same year as Willem de Kooning. They all shared long productive lives. Although Smith was unable to begin to create a body of work until she was in her 70’s, she was likely creative all of her life. One of the hallmarks of her paintings are the prominently displayed captions or titles written in coded lettering and opaque anagrams which are integral elements of the overall design. She used only two to four different colors per painting.
In 1985 she had a stroke which left her writing impaired. Still, her output was prolific throughout the 1980’s. Her full human figures painted on cut corrugated tin are among her more unusual works; as are paintings with animals, trees or multiple figures. One should seek works which have compositional strength, power and clarity. Her work is in permanent collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the American Folk Art Museum.
edited from article by William Arnett