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The paintings of Mary Tillman Smith


Mary T. Smith was a self-taught African-American artist from Mississippi. She lived from 1904 to 1995. She was a prolific artist during the years in which she painted. In her yard, she apparently created some outbuildings where she painted and installed her work. Smith’s work was well-collected (her paintings can be found at the Met and in the Smithsonian for instance) and although she sold a lot of paintings, she died penniless, as she was not able to paint during her last few years.

She didn’t start painting until the late-70s. She often used found materials like plywood or corrugated tin as a ground. The works I’m familiar with typically have one or more figures, arms raised up, painted in one or two colours. Many of her figures are similar and very purposeful. Often she used very unusual colour combinations.  I’ve wondered if she sometimes bought paint returns from the bargain bin at her local hardware. Some of her works contained hand-painted text, often religious in nature.

Powerful, transfixing work.

There is an interesting essay about Mary T. Smith written by William Arnett, who championed her work. The painting in the photo above hangs in our home.

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