What do Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh, and Jean-Michel Basquiat have in common? They are all self-taught artists. Southern Visionaries is a sampling from the Albany Museum of Art permanent collection that examines a small group of artists who were all largely self-taught and extremely motivated to create—O.L. Samuels, Woodrow Wilson “Woodie” Long, and Eddie Owens Martin, who is also known as St. EOM. Each was born and raised in the American Southeast. Though they all left home at some point, they returned to what was familiar and created their visionary legacies here. Some used their artwork as a method to heal themselves, while others, with a divine purpose in mind.
O.L. SAMUELS (1931-2017) left his home in Wilcox County, Ga., at an early age to work. After a brief stint in New York City as a boxer, he returned to Georgia to work as a tree surgeon. In 1985, he was injured when he fell from a tree, leaving him bound to a wheelchair and without direction for many years. Eventually, Samuels recovered and his grandmother’s advice inspired him to carve. He carved what he saw in the unrefined tree bark he had become familiar with as a tree surgeon, freeing fantastical creatures from their confinement in the wood. Samuels’ sculptures are playful and imaginative figures created with eye-catching mixed media such as glitter paint and glass orbs for realistic eyes. Surfaces are intricately painted with patterns and shapes that add to the spectacle of these sculptures.
EDDIE OWENS MARTIN (1908-1986) was a self-taught artist from Marion County, Ga., who drew inspiration from many different cultures to develop the seven-acre, internationally recognized visionary art environment known as Pasaquan. Martin’s artistic journey started at age 14 when he left his hometown of Buena Vista to embark on a hitchhiking adventure to New York City. He lived in Harlem and worked several jobs as a street hustler, fortune-teller, bartender, gambler, and drag queen. After the death of his mother, Martin returned to Georgia in 1957, moved into his mother’s old farmhouse, and continued his occupation as a fortune-teller to help fund his vision for Pasaquan.
He changed his name to St. EOM (pronounced Ohm) and became the first Pasaquoyan. He continued to work on the art environment for 30 years, creating six major structures, vibrant mandala murals, and more than 900 feet of elaborately painted masonry walls he built mainly with his bare hands. This disc was a gift from the Marion County Historical Society to the Albany Museum of Art in 1992, about the time that Pasaquan was being turned into a fully-functional museum for the public.
WOODROW WILSON “WOODIE” LONG: A housepainter by trade, Long, would create lively scenes on the walls of customers’ houses, painting over the images before they were discovered. After 25 years in the trade, Long experienced job-caused health issues, forcing his retirement in 1987. He painted his first “real” painting after his desire to paint a house resurfaced. Unable to paint lively scenes on other people’s walls, he borrowed his wife’s simple art supplies to satisfy the void in his life. He wanted to share the story of his life with his art. According to Long, his art helped to heal his job-related injuries and paved the way for him to record his memories for his children, and to keep his story alive.
With each painting, Long offered a glimpse into his childhood as a poor sharecropper’s son. He did not depict a life full of struggle, which he surely experienced after his father departed from the family when the artist was a teenager, but instead shows moments of pure and simple joy in life. The colors he used evoke happiness and warmth that embody his positive memories. In true storyteller fashion, Long used colorful flourishes to recreate his childhood memories, sometimes capturing the “memories” of others in his works. With scenes of domesticity, such as washing clothes, children playing, and even fieldwork, he said these are the positive memories he hoped to evoke in others, as though he were trying to pull memories out of his viewers.