Jesse Howard & Roger Brown: Now Read On

August 6 - September 17

Overview

Installation view
Installation view
Installation view, Roger Brown, "The War We Won," 1991, 80 x 120 in., Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist
Installation view
Installation view


The H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, in collaboration with The Center for Creative Studies at The University of Missouri Kansas City and The Roger Brown Study Collection at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago proudly prese
nted "Jesse Howard & Roger Brown: Now Read On."

 
This innovative exhibition explored parallel ideas and conceptual junctures in the works of Jesse Howard and Roger Brown, both of whom expressed deeply-held perceptions of tension, irony, ambiguity and contradiction in American social, political and religious culture.  Jesse Howard (1885-1983) and Roger Brown (1941-1997) existed in distinctly different cultural spheres: Howard, as a self-taught artist, in his home, studio and exhibition space, which spanned both sides of a country road near Fulton, Mo., and Brown, who was raised in Alabama but lived and worked in the urban, mainstream, cultural world of Chicago.  Both were informed by the cultural and religious terrain of the South, had an affinity for popular forms of communication, shared populist points of view and were insistent on speaking their minds even though their opinions and ideas were often unpopular.  Both artists addressed the range of polarized issues of their day, which continue to have strong contemporary currency.  Each sought a greater truth, whether citing scripture to set the record straight, or by exposing fraud or bureaucracy in politics and religion.  Each drew on personal history, faith and a skewed optimism that fueled the flames of their artistic creations.
 
The artists first met in 1971, when Roger Brown, at the urging of his mentors in the Chicago art community, embarked on a pilgrimage to feed his creative development and find affinities within his own emerging vision.  By then, Howard had been making signs for 20 years and was old enough to be Brown’s grandfather.  Brown’s travels were inspired by an article from Art in America, written in 1986 by Greg Blasdell, which described “an unusual group of artists…who felt the need to build something original and exciting from whatever they found at hand.” Jesse Howard was one of those artists.
 
Comprised of a series of thematically-conceived tableaux, "Now Read On" featured individual paintings by Brown paired with installations of hand-painted signs and objects by Howard, addressing those same topics and themes from a rather dissimilar perspective.
 
"Jesse Howard & Roger Brown: Now Read On" travell to the Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from October 4 through November 18, 2005. The exhibition is accompanied by a 108 page catalog, published by UMKC, featuring essays by the exhibition’s co-curators, Jerry Bleem, Andrei Codrescu, Eleanor Heartney, and Lucy Lippard. 
 
In addition, a public symposium hosted by the Center for Creative Studies at The University of Missouri Kansas City entitled, “Behind the Creative Process,” was held on Saturday, September 10, at the Spencer theatre, UMKC.  Participants included art historian and cultural critic Eleanor Heartney, Brooke Anderson, Curator of Contemporary Art at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and Chicago artist Karl Wirsum, a contemporary of Roger Brown and an artist associated with the Chicago Imagists.
 
 
The exhibition and accompanying catalog were a collaborative project of the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Center for Creative Studies at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and the Roger Brown Study Collection at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was curated by Raechell Smith, Director of the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, and Lisa Stone, Director of the Roger Brown Study Collection at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The project received generous support from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, the H&R Block Foundation, UMKC Center for Creative Studies, and the Missouri Arts Council.
 
 
Also on view at the Artspace in the Roger L. & Joni Cohen Resource Room was the exhibition "Chicago Style: Imagery & Influence" drawn from the Kansas City Art Institute’s collection highlighting Chicago artists, many of whom were contemporaries of Roger Brown and were similarly influenced by popular culture, self-taught artists, and a range of unlikely sources. The exhibition was curated by Heather Lustfeldt, Assistant Curator, and featured the work of Tony Fitzpatrick, Ed Paschke, H.C. Westermann, Robert Lostutter, Peter Saul, and Roger Brown. More info here: http://www.kcai.edu/artspace/about-artspace/resource-room/2005-exhibitions
 
 
For generous support of the 2003-2004 exhibition series at the Artspace, the Kansas City Art Institute gratefully acknowledges the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and the H&R Block Foundation.
 

Checklist

 

 
A Crooked Generation/Government Smokescreen
 
 
NRO.001
Roger Brown
Government Smokescreen
1990
oil on canvas
72" x 48"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of  The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.002
Jesse Howard
Untitled (A Crooked Generation...)
1973
paint on wood and rubber tire assemblage
27” diameter
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.003
Jesse Howard
Untitled (The Court House Gang. Yes...)
c.1970
paint on wood
9 ½" x 67"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.004
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Fulton, MO. March 19, 1973. The Court House...)
1973
paint on wood
18" x 79 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.005
Jesse Howard
Untitled (What is Going on Behind the Iron Curtain...)
c.1970
paint on wood
7 ½" x 56 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.006
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Fulton, MO. March 26, 1973...)
1973
paint on wood
12 ¾" x 56 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.007
Jesse Howard
Untitled (June 14 1961 Judge Poelker...)
1961
paint on metal
11 ½" x 30"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.008
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Yes Sere’ Some Thief...)
c.1960
paint on metal
23 ¼ " x 27"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.009
Jesse Howard
Untitled (If You Want to See a Gang of Hoodlum Police...)
1961
paint on metal drum lid
22” diameter
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.010
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Sheriff W.A. Bill Dawson...)
c.1970
paint on wood
10 ½" x 24"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.011
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Boycott to Combine…)(Who Said...)
c.1960
paint on metal with wood frame (double sided)
33" x 47"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
 
Disappointments
 
NRO.012
Roger Brown
Down Down Down
1986
oil on canvas
64" x 48"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.013
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Father Against Son and Son Against...)
date unknown
paint on hinged irregular wood
68 ½" x 30 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.014
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Fulton, MO. May 7, 1973...)
1973
paint on wood
11" x 90 ¾"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 

 

NRO.015
Jesse Howard
Untitled (75 Years of Hard Labor...)
c.1970
paint on wood
5 ½" x 65"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.016
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Dog and Cat Grave Yard...)
1964
paint on wood
12" x 37 ¾"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.017
Jesse Howard
Untitled (What is a Man to Do?...)
c.1970
paint on wood
5" x 90"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.018
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Mine Disasters Is Awful Bad...)
1963
paint on wood
10" x 26"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.019
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Yes I Have a Pure White Kitty...)
1953
paint on wood
15" x 33 ¼"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.020
Jesse Howard
Untitled (I Might Be a Tough Old Guy...)
c.1960
paint on wood
11 ½" x 50 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.021
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Outlaw Howard...)
date unknown
paint on metal
14 ½" x 14 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.069
Howard
Untitled “Woe Unto You Taxicab Drivers”
c.1960
paint on metal
25" x 21"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute

 
Do You Read...
 
 
NRO.022
Roger Brown
Can't Never Could / The Courage To Face The Trials And Bring A Whole New Body Of Possibilities Into The Field of Interpreted Experience - That Is the Artists) Sees. Joseph Campbell
1991
oil on canvas
48" x 72"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.023
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Fulton, MO. February First, 1974...)
1974
painted wooden rectangle
11 ½" x 116"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.024
Jesse Howard
Untitled (000.000 Nothing...)
date unknown
paint on metal
16” diameter
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.025
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Do You Read Ann Landers Columns...)
date unknown
paint on wooden windmill blade
51” diameter
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.026
Jesse Howard
Untitled (If I Make My Bed In Hell...)
date unknown
painted wood
11 ½" x 39"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.027
Jesse Howard
untitled (Shame, Yes", Shame...)
date unknown
paint on wood
22" x 68"
Courtesy of The Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
 
NRO.028
Jesse Howard
untitled (Woman 104 Years Old Says...)
date unknown
paint on wood
11 ½" x 31 ½"
Courtesy of The Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
 


In God We Trust
 
 
NRO.029
Roger Brown
Arrangement in Blue and Gray, The Artist and his Friend Fishing
1985
oil on canvas
72" x 48"
Roger Brown Permanent Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.030
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Some People Say There Is No God...)
date unknown
paint on metal
14" x 35 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.031
Jesse Howard
Untitled (The Voice of the Bird...)
c.1960
paint on corn planter sign
37" x 56" x 18”
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.032
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Quote. Behold How Good...)
c.1960
paint on masonite
6" x 30"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.033
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Man in the Glass...)
1955
painted mirror and wood
68 ¼" x 49 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.034
Jesse Howard
Untitled (A Friend in Need is a Friend in Deed...)
date unknown
paint on wood with hinges
57 ½" x 24 ¼"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.035
Jesse Howard
Untitled (God Bless the Owl...)
1956
wood, metal, paint, shoe insert
39" x 35"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 

 

NRO.036
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Quote. Cast Me Not Off...)
date unknown
paint on wood (double-sided)
8" x 54"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
 
In the Beginning
 
 
NRO.037
Roger Brown
The Story of Creation
1989
oil on canvas
48" x 60"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.038
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Jericho, the City of Palm Trees...)
date unknown
paint on masonite
23 ¼" x 27"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.039
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Job’s Grave Quote...)
c.1950
painted assembled wood and metal
29" x 31"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.040
Jesse Howard
Untitled (This is the Pillar that Jacob Setup...)
1953
paint on wood with three panel construction
52" x 71 ½ "
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.041
Jesse Howard
Untitled (They Might Dismember This Old Man...)
c.1949
paint on assembled wood with hinges
17 ½" x 53 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.042
Jesse Howard
Untitled (The Patience of Job…)
date unknown
mixed media and found objects
64" x 19" x 57”
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 

 

NRO.043
Jesse Howard
Untitled (In the Beginning...)
date unknown
paint on wood
12 ¼" x 36 ¼"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.044
Jesse Howard
Untitled (The Firt Book of Moses...)
date unknown
paint on wood
12" x 120"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
 
Our Family Record
 
 
NRO.045
Roger Brown
Coming to America
1990
72" x 72"
Roger Brown Permanent Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.046
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Our Family Record...)
c.1952
paint on wooden headboard with hinges
57 ½" x 62 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.047
Jesse Howard
Untitled (This is the History of My Life...)
c.1959
paint on wood with hinges
17" x 58 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
 
Saith the Lord
 
 
NRO.048
Roger Brown
Beast Rising From the Sea
1983
oil on canvas
72" x 54"
Roger Brown Permanent Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.049
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Quote. And If a Kingdom Be...)
c.1970
paint on wood and metal
18" x 84 ¼"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.050
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Vengeance is Mine...)
c.1950
paint on metal
10" x 40"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.051
Jesse Howard
Untitled (The Lord Saith Vengeance is Mine...)
1960
paint on metal drum lid
22 ¼” diameter
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.052
Jesse Howard
Untitled (They Shall Justle One Against Another...)
c.1960
paint on wood
11 ¾" x 72"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
 
They Have It Coming
 
 
NRO.053
Roger Brown
The Writing in the Sky
1985
oil on canvas
72 ½" x 48"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.054
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Hugh P. Williamson Assistant...)
date unknown
paint on masonite
15 ¾" x 52"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.055
Jesse Howard
Untitled (“Sorehead” Hill, ‘Sneak’ Thief...)
c.1970
paint on wood
11" x 47"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.056
Jesse Howard
Untitled (John F. Kennedy...)
c.1960
paint on wood assemblage
8 ½" x 119 ¼"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 

 

NRO.057
Jesse Howard
Untitled (There Hasn’t Been Only One Thing...)
c.1960
paint on wood
7 ¼" x 81 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.058
Jesse Howard
Untitled (I Can Tell You What Will Be Going On On Capitol Hill...)
c.1960
paint on metal drum lid
22” diameter
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.059
Jesse Howard
Untitled (A Man Stopped and Was...)
c.1970
paint on wood
5 ½" x 61"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.060
Jesse Howard
untitled (I Know Some People...)
date unknown
paint on wood
13" x 76"
Courtesy of The Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
 
 
UnAmerican...
 
 
NRO.061
Roger Brown
The UnAmerican House Activities Committee
1991
oil on canvas
60" x 60"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.062
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Mr. President, Mr. Lyndon...)
c.1970
paint on wood
9 ¾" x 61"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.063
Jesse Howard
Untitled (If You Don’t Know What It Is Like...)
c.1970
paint on wood
11 ¼" x 98"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 

 

NRO.064
Jesse Howard
Untitled (The Brain-Washed Communist...)
c.1960
paint on wood
7 ¼" x 81 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.065
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Who? And Where Is? The Communist Thief...)
c.1970
eyehooks on top edge
9 ¼" x 21 ½"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
NRO.066
Jesse Howard
untitled (Did You Know, That You "Yes, You...)
date unknown
paint on wood
18" x 34"
Courtesy of The Roger Brown Study Collection, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
 
 
Wanted Peacemakers
 
 
NRO.067
Roger Brown
The War We Won
1991
oil on canvas
80" x 120"
Roger Brown Estate Painting Collection. Courtesy of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brown family
 
NRO.068
Jesse Howard
Untitled (Wanted Peacemakers...)
date unknown
paint on wood
11 ½" x 73 ¼"
Courtesy of the Kansas City Art Institute
 
 
 
 
Jesse Howard (1885 – 1983), a self-taught artist and local philosopher, lived on the outskirts of Fulton, Missouri from 1944 to 1983, where he created an extensive artistic environment of signs and sculptural objects throughout his rural property. Inspired by an incident with vandals in the 1940’s, Howard published his thoughts and opinions on everything from lawyers and judges, to free speech, Fulton, and the state of the world. In 1953 he began making signs and objects, narrrating ideas and perceptions based on his experiences, reflections, and focused reading of the Bible. Quoting the Bible with great frequency, Howard’s signs tell a story of a man who is old and often alone, yet willing to confront the realities of his life and of life in general. Characteristically, one of his signs reads: 75 years of hard labor is a might long time, and 50 years of disappointment is a long long time. His narratives were incorporated into various constructions and assemblages made from materials at hand, including cast-off agricultural equipment, colored glass marbles, metal, leather shoe soles, and window shades, as well as wood planks of all types. A folk celebrity of sorts, Jesse Howard has been written about in magazine and newspapers across the country. His work was first introduced to a broad art audience in Art in America (Gregg Blasdel, “Grassroots Art in America”, September/October 1968). In 1974 Howard was included in the seminal exhibition "Naives and Visionaries" at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, MN. This exhibit was the first to showcase the genre of environments created by artists outside of the mainstream. His works have been widely collected by artists and collectors, notably Roger Brown, who credited Howard as a major influence on his own work, and have been exhibited at the Kansas City Art Institute, Intuit: the Center for Intuitve and Outsider Art (Chicago). Howard died in 1983.
           
Roger Brown (1941-1997) was raised in Opelika, Alabama. After briefly studying to be a preacher in Nashville, Brown moved to Chicago in 1962 where he took classes at the American Academy of Art before enrolling at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he later earned his BFA in 1968 and MFA in 1970. During this time, Brown was engaged in an art making movement in Chicago later defined as Chicago Imagism. The Imagists were known not only for energetic originality of their works, but for the relationship bewteen their own art practice and the objects they collected and lived with. During his prolific but tragically abbreviated career, Brown was recognized internationally for his significant artistic contributions. Best known as a painter, he also made prints and sculpture, designed sets for theatre and opera, and murals for architectural settings. His work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibition both in the United States and abroad. Major retrospectives include the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts 1980, and The Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1987. In 2004, “Roger Brown: A Different Dimension”, an exhibition of Brown’s sculpture and three-dimensional paintings was organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Brown’s rich artistic career was intensely original and personal, and exemplified a significant aspect of Chicago’s art history, which has had an impact on culture in Chicago and beyond. Brown’s major gifts of homes (3), collections, and archival materials to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are preserved through the Roger Brown Study Collection. Brown died in 1997.

Essay

Jesse Howard & Roger Brown: Now Read On
Raechell Smith

In life and in art the paths of Jesse Howard and Roger Brown had crossed already many times before this exhibition conceived to pair the two of them together. Still, it is hard to imagine, given the distances between them, what circumstances may have brought these two men together in the first place, and what circumstances, now, would substantiate a reunion of reckoning (and questioning) of the work they created three decades later.
 
In the case of the first meeting between these two venerable American artists, the credit goes to Roger Brown. Even as a young artist, Brown was already navigating the networking systems of art and, at the urging of his mentors in the Chicago art community, mining the margins of those systems to feed his creative development and perhaps, to find affinities and connections with his own emerging vision.
 
By the time the two met, Howard was a seasoned sign maker of some twenty years plus and certainly old enough to be Brown’s grandfather and then some. Brown’s travels, in the summers of 1971 and 1972, were inspired by an article published in Art in America in 1968, about “an unusual group of American artists…who felt the need to build something original and exciting from whatever they found at hand.”1 This pilgrimage of sorts took Brown from the modern metropolis of Chicago to the slow pace and rural interior of Missouri, to the small, quiet town of Fulton to meet one of the artists featured in the article, Jesse Howard.
 
As a young man, Howard too had traveled away from home in search of sights and life experiences, coming home with stories and memories of a few wonders himself. Many years earlier, at the very beginning of the century, Howard’s own travels had taken him, with his six partial years of schooling and the work ethic of a farm boy raised by good Christian parents, away from his rural roots into the brave expanse of a new century. In both cases, eyes were wide open.
 
Roger Brown had grown up in rural Alabama, with a strong religious upbringing, but while Howard and Brown may have had similar beginnings in this world, the cultural contexts and the course each man’s life took, was quite different, especially from a 21st-century perspective. But, as it turns out, Brown was searching and Howard was waiting to be found, hoping that at least someone was out there listening and thinking about the sorry state of things as he saw them.
 
Chances are pretty good that the two men didn’t see eye to eye on much of what concerned them, except for perhaps a knowledge of all things biblical and their shared rural American heritage, but then any difference in opinion they may have had probably just never came up. There was, however, a passion in both men and the faith they collectively held in the power of beliefs and convictions conveyed. Somehow, though, a connection between a young man and an older man - and their artistic sensibilities - was made. There was something in each of them that suited the other.
 
Howard, you see, was a showman and a teller of stories. And while some of those stories might have been of the big-fish variety for the sake of his listener’s enjoyment, any listener it seems, Howard had a guest to entertain and a tour to escort. A tour that included several buildings, crafted by hand and ingenuity over the years of discarded but darn useful old odds and ends. This experience, we can now imagine, must have played well to Brown’s already developed penchant for the serendipidity and eccentricities that make up the vernacular.
 
In each building on Howard’s property, there were wonders to explore. The wonders, of course, were Howard’s signs, hundreds of them conceived and carefully fashioned, hand lettered to expound his views on a range of topics that touched his life: world politics, city government, corruption, sin and degenerate values - the iniquities of a life lived, one might say.
 
The first sign, made by Howard twenty years, give or take, before Brown’s visit to Fulton, was a protest. It was an accusation of wrongdoing, aimed at vandals who had destroyed one of his prized hand-made model airplanes. The airplane had been displayed purposely for the enjoyment of anyone who might pass by or come for a visit, and it had been smashed up for no possible good reason.
 
Such an occasion, in all likelihood, was confounding to Howard, who in earlier years had participated with his friend Ed M. Peacock in entertaining and delighting crowds of invited spectators for organized displays of the antique farm implements and steam engines collected by Peacock. In creating and displaying his own handmade and found objects, Howard might have expected a similar response, one characterized by amusement and delight, not violence and destruction. As disappointed as Howard must have been upon discovering the work of unknown vandals who had destroyed a thing that Howard made with pure sincerity, he retaliated against his transgressors by making a sign, for the express purpose of communicating his disapproval, his dissatisfaction.
 
Imagine this, then, as a kind of folk art “happening” that fueled an old man’s retirement hobby and went on to inspire an outpouring of prolific, creative achievement. Howard’s life delivered disappointment and frustration. And it continued to deliver a steady stream of transgressors, real and - if not imagined necessarily - then certainly perceived. Along with the salvaged wood and metal, the house paint and, later, the magic markers he used to create his signs and sculptures, these were the materials that served Howard’s art.
 
At the time of Brown’s visits, it’s unlikely that Howard would have considered himself an artist   but already he had received many of the visitors from beyond Fulton who would, over the next few years, come to have an impact on Howard’s slippage into the history of twentieth-century American art.
 
Chief among these visitors was Richard Rhodes, a writer whose experience of meeting Howard and his observations of the signs was to be published first in a collection of essays in the book, The Inland Ground: An Evocation of the American Middle West. Gregg Blasdell, the young artist and grass-roots art enthusiast who authored the 1968 article, was also to serve as a guest curator for an exhibition in 1974 at the Walker Art Center of work by “nine artist-craftsmen whose visionary environments,” including Howard’s, were featured.2
 
As emissaries or ambassadors of the Kansas City Art Institute, visitors Dale Eldred, Willem Volkherz, and others, came to know Howard and respect his creative endeavors, as well. There were others, of course, newspaper reportors, curiosity seekers, the hooligans Howard cites in numerous signs. Charley Drace, a young college student from Westminster College, whose tenure in Fulton between 1959 and 1963, was to turn into a lifetime of exchange, a friendship of sorts, and a well intentioned championing of a man who was misunderstood by his community and mistreated as a result.
 
Some of the signs were purchased from Howard by visitors and collections of Howard’s work began to accumulate, including the Kansas City Art Institute’s collection of over 100 signs, sculptures, and related materials from which this exhibition is drawn. Roger Brown also collected a selection of Howard’s signs that were on view in his Chicago home, a few of which are included in this exhibition and were also included in at least one exhibition organized by Brown in Chicago.
 
The two artists never met again but Brown spoke of the influence, direct or indirect, that the older man’s work had on his own and their work has come together through the curatorial efforts of a few before now. Works by Howard and Brown, since the mid 1970s, have hung on walls in adjacent rooms in Brown’s house in Chicago. In this context, which certainly inspired the envisioning of the current pairing and investigation of the two artists’ work together, the relationship between the two makes sense and immediately conjures up a host of connective ideas. Context has a way of creating a filter, adding a layer of understanding that can add to or change the meaning of something.
 
The decision to exhibit works by both Howard and Brown, outside of their respective, cultivated environments comprised of things made and things found, does one thing. The act of assembling a selection representing two extensive collections of works by Howard and Brown has resulted in the discovery of several dominant and parallel themes recurring, by chance or by faith, through each artist’s career.
 
The presence of these themes has provided the impetus for organizing the work in Now Read On: Jesse Howard & Roger Brown and has provided the organizers and, hopefully, the viewers of the exhibition and readers of the catalog, with new insight into the work of two individualistic and visionary American artists of the twentieth century.
 
 
 
The Tableaux
Raechell Smith and Lisa Stone
 
Now Read On: Jesse Howard & Roger Brown assembles works arranged and grouped thematically under two headings: Driven by Religion and Debating the World. Together these works illustrate the drive each artist had, expressed through their work, to pose questions, name names, rail against, circle around, and address the issues that concerned them, in life and in art, as individuals and as members of a community. There was awareness and articulation, too, of how the each artist’s respective community contributed to a larger scheme and helped comprise, in a larger sense, the society or societies, rather, that they both felt compelled to respond to with commentary and critique.
 
It is by design that the exhibition celebrates both the similarities between the two artists, as well as the disparities, the ambiguities and unanswered questions alongside the contradictions. Arranged as an exhibition, the works engage two distinct strategies and, hopefully, achieve two things. Through comparison, they present some of the overarching, prevailing themes for our consideration. Through juxtaposition, they invite us to compare and contrast these artists. As with the standard practice known by all who have ever taken an art history survey course, we might, through this activity, distill a more meaningful understanding of the artists, the art at hand and, by association, something of the time and circumstances of its making.
 
Driven by Religion
 
The first four tableaux, or vignettes, of the exhibition present works that illustrate Howard’s and Brown’s engagement of religious, Christian themes, including stories, characters, and values, as expressed in the Bible. Each artist’s approach was unique. Howard, with a didactic reliance on text and language, quotes scripture, often referencing the exact pages from his own King James version of the book, and recounts, albeit sometimes loosely and somewhat expressionistically, tales of ancient woes and glories. Brown, on the other hand, illustrates the visual equivalents in a painterly, narrative format, including the symbols and signifiers of the Bible’s teaching through storytelling. Neither artist was a churchogoer, however, they both displayed the ability to interweave aspects of Christian themes and lessons with aspects, anecdotes, and details drawn from contemporary life.
 
Jesse Howard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and its teachings inspired his sign and object making. Roger Brown, raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical Church of Christ environment, didn’t ascribe to this or any other organized religion as an adult. In fact, Brown’s lifestyle and open homosexuality would have been categorically rejected by this church. He did not abandon the power and drama he experienced in church activities in his youth, instead he distilled memories of his religious upbringing, and incorporated it into his work.
 
In God We Trust
 
Howard and Brown both had a reverence for nature and more gentle expressions of this and their own personal reflections on unity, faith, and beauty are conjoined in the first tableaux. Here, too, there are hints of each artist’s contemplation of human suffering, mortality, and death.
 
Howard’s early construction, The Voice of the Bird, is a poetic evocation of the Biblical and spiritual dimensions of the bird as one of God’s creatures. Constructed from the castoff seed planter it once was, the object’s new function as object/sculpture is fueled by Howard’s wit and resourcefulness as a scavenger cum artist/maker. 
 
In Brown’s Arrangement in Blue and Gray: The Artist and His Friend Fishing, the luminosity and profound stillness of the lake and sky beyond form a monumental, yet intimate setting for human connection, projected microscopically against the vastness of nature. In much of Brown’s work, stylized cloudscapes and weather events form the visual, metaphorical, and perhaps spiritual backdrop and context for human enterprise and exchange, invariably dwarfed by the omnipresent and mercurial forces of nature.
 
In the Beginning
 
Howard and Brown both pondered the story of Creation, making connections between the Biblical story of original sin and more contemporary sins. Both artists borrow and appropriate to create their own unique visions; Howard lifting from the Bible, Brown from the work of another artist. Their reflections on creation conflate ancient origins and the present time, connecting then to now.
 
Howard’s reflections on creation are expressed in litanies focusing on the minute details he fondly recounts verbatim and in genealogical list form, providing a foundation for further rants on generations, familial bonds and responsibilities, brotherhood, and unity. In his construction, The Patience of Job, Howard used over 40 different types of wood,3 and describes specific qualities of each in near moral terms. Here, Howard reveals his style of putting on display his own learnedness and knowledge, delivering, too, his facility for divining symbolic meanings in the material world. 
 
Brown was a great admirer of the pre-Renaissance painters of Sienna and his own Story of Creation is a parody inspired by Giovanni de Paolo’s The Creation and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1445). In Paolo’s version God, held aloft by cherubim, swoops down holding a mappa mundi. This representation of the universe shows the unformed world, encircled by rings representing the elements and symbols of the zodiac and known planets. Adam and Eve are ushered out of Paradise by an angel, here in a California setting. Brown recreates the fall from grace, animating the scene with classical and popular culture. Brown’s Story of Creation includes a smug version of Kenny Rogers (which he identified as God in a preparatory sketch) perhaps to suggest the ascendancy of popular culture over religion in the twentieth century.
 
Saith the Lord
 
The more dramatic, ominous prophecies, warnings, and judgments of the rewards and/or punishments of a life lived figure into Howard’s and Brown’s re-envisioning of religion as well. In Howard’s work, the phrase “and if a kingdom be divided against itself” is a way for Howard to call into play a range of circumstances or, on an individual level, misdeeds that cast “Old Man Howard” as a victim, an individual misunderstood by his community. However, Howard’s reckoning of justness in the world also puts Hitlerite agitators alongside Sodom and Gomorrah.
 
Brown made paintings about iconic Biblical stories, both Old and New Testament, including Beast rising from the Sea, recasting the seven-headed, ten-horned beast from the Book of Revelation. Brown does so with irony, though, as the dark silhouette of the beast towers over a miniaturized and petrified humanity, perhaps calling into question the verity of the Beast as ultimate anti-Christ by endowing it with a benignly furry, stuffed-animal quality.

Our Family Record
 
Familial bonds, connections, and traditions also make their appearance in works by Howard and Brown. In two of the works in this tableau, the artists use inventive strategies and create interesting and unique formats for the presentation of what may otherwise be just a banal and run of the mill subject.
 
Howard incorporates details of his own autobiography and personal life in many of his signs, but nowhere more clearly than in the ornately carved and hand-painted headboard turned canvas Our Family Record. Here, Howard records the date and intimate details of his marriage to wife, Maud, along with the birth dates for their five children. With a somewhat ornery twist, Howard conjures up matrimony, vows, consummation, and one family’s genealogical heritage in this one work. Here he transfers the common tradition of recording the names and dates of births and deaths in a family bible into one of his more sculptural and elaborate signs.
 
Brown exhaustively researched his family tree for 25 years and made several paintings illustrating aspects of his family’s history. Assuredly, it is an uncommon subject for contemporary art, and a pursuit that some of Brown’s friends thought was uninteresting. Coming to America is a diagram of both geographical and genealogical details, framed in the format of a sideshow banner. By using the banner format to present this otherwise tame subject, Brown may have intended to raise the genealogical journey to the auspicious level he felt it deserved.   
 
Debating the World
 
Debating the world is something that both Howard and Brown did regularly. It is the modus operandi for both artists. The two artists, employing their respective set of skills and materials, responded to current events in one of two ways – describing them in a straightforward, from the headlines, manner, or with a more sensationalistic, grandstanding style of editorial.
 
Do You Read…
 
Howard and Brown believed strongly that an individual had a responsibility to be informed, aware, and literate, in order to practice good, upstanding citizenship. In both, there is a low threshold of tolerance for what was perceived as a kind of mass ignorance or naïveté. For Howard, one of the greatest crimes is “the great multitude of people that don’t know a Holy Bible from a funny paper.”
 
Brown’s Motto of the Masses, repeats a phrase that Brown’s mother used to scold her sons if she sensed their resolve to finish a task had flagged. In each artists’ works, there is an echo of a regional, Protestant sensibility that hard work will always pay off. This “can-co” attitude infuses many of Howard’s signs and Brown, too, was drawn to this line of criticism, as he provides hand-held banners for the silhouetted figures in his painting that read, “I Can’t, You Can’t, It Can’t.”
 
UnAmerican…
 
Howard and Brown both displayed a unique brand of patriotism, offering up decidedly different viewpoints and presented, in this tableau, side by side. Howard’s signs excoriating communism are iconic to his oeuvre; the virulent anti-communist stance adopted by Howard indicates that he took it all very seriously, pretty personally, and absorbed is as a kind of Truth. All of this is more understandable when one considers the political context of Howard’s time as well as the fact that he was living in a place he may have considered to be a version of “ground zero” for the Cold War.
 
It was in Fulton, in fact, that Winston Churchill delivered his now famous “Sinews of Peace” talk, introducing the phrase Iron Curtain into the global vocabulary. Fulton and its citizens gained a certain level of renown due to Churchill’s visit in 1946. Howard seems to have felt the eyes of the world alighting on his hometown of Fulton and he liked this attention. There was also the ongoing media-generated red-scare propaganda that Howard and countless others encountered with their daily dose of local and national newspapers, more than likely inspiring him to rant repeatedly about the “brain washed communists” everywhere in his midst.
 
Brown’s UnAmerican House Activities Committee adopts the ribbon of text from the side show or freak show banner tradition, echoing a format represented in a large banner by Snapp Wyatt that hung in his home. This genre of American painting was much celebrated by Brown and other Chicago artists. As a counterpart to Howard’s invectives about communism and the opinions held about the threat of evil it presented, Brown portrays the House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings as a categorically un-American manipulation of the nation’s political process. By using the banner format he may have been suggesting that he considered the HUAC hearings as one of the country’s more destructive freak shows, as many artist’s careers were ruined by the process.
 
A Crooked Generation
 
Howard and Brown both opposed governmental corruption and created vehement indictments of its existence on all levels. As an ardent advocate for honesty and integrity in elected officials, Howard called out the abusers, as he saw them, with relentless criticism. His signs rail invectives towards the crooks, hoodlums, judges, police, lawyers, and the courthouse gang, as he calls a groups of Fulton officials, but especially the tax assessors, who “wore out countless pencils raising his taxes.” One of Howard’s particular concerns was the notion that taxation without representation was unlawful and he, in his own estimation, was left without protection and representation when it came to the vandals and thieves that disrupted his sense of safety at home. “Free thought and free speech” was a common theme for Howard, and one gets the sense that by exposing injustices and inequities there on the fence bordering his property, that he inched closer to reclaiming justice than if he had remained silent.
 
Government Smokescreen, another of Brown’s paintings using the sideshow banner format, frames the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s as one grand governmental freak show. Brown distills the S&L debacle that occurred early in Reagan’s administration into a simple image: an American flag is suspended across a classical architectural façade as tiny figures rendered in silhouette take a match to the lower corner of the flag in protest.
 
 
They Have It Coming
 
Howard and Brown had enemies both close to home and far away and both artists were known for the indignation they expressed in their works. Here, Howard names his transgressors, including a Fulton Judge, Hugh P. Williamson, John F. Kennedy, and some of the people he knows who are “so darned contrary,” but he also cites a supporter, one who has expressed appreciation for Howard’s ability to give the deserving the hell they have coming.
 
The Writing in the Sky, directed toward Chicago art critic Alan Artner (and art critics in general), is one of two paintings by Brown using text almost exclusively. It’s interesting to note that Brown uses a standard visual device of Howard’s, perhaps in homage to the older artist, calling out certain words in red for emphasis – a graphic convention Howard most likely borrowed from the Bible.
 
Brown was admiring of the example set by Howard’s independent voice. In an interview, Brown once stated “…I felt I was given the liberty to do that [use text in his work] by Jesse Howard, and…it finally came out in my own work, it was certainly influenced by Jesse’s being able to do that…I sort of decided to just put it out there, whatever I have to say, no matter how corny or cranky it may be…because that’s what Jesse did and it worked for Jesse so...why not?”4
 
Wanted Peacemakers
 
Howard’s sign, reading Wanted Peacemaker’s, accompanies the larger than life group portrait, The War We Won, by Brown of world leaders Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush (the Elder), and Ronald Reagan. While each work is somewhat ambiguous in its meaning, Brown’s sketch for his painting provides insight, with various combinations of the phrase, “We won the war with Communism but lost the battle of Viet Nam.” Considering the power of those leaders who broker for peace and prosperity, Howard and Brown were unflinching in their bold calls for responsible leadership.
 
Disappointments
 
For two artists who so often addressed the world beyond themselves, it’s important to acknowledge the range of poignant, personal expressions of disappointment, discouragement, disenchantment, disillusionment, rejection, and loss.
 
In some of the most personal and autobiographical signs he ever made, Howard is as brutally honest here as we have come to expect him to be. Howard is right and there is no argument that “75 years of hard labor is a mighty long time and 50 years of dissapointment is a long, long time.” Howard was never diagnosed with clinical depression or any other known mental affliction, but he became less resilient as the years wore on. Brown, born of a different generation and certainly no stranger to loss and grief, had his low periods and created a visual equivalent of spiraling downward in Down Down Down.      
 
 
Notes
 
1               Gregg Blasdell, “The Grass-Roots Artist,” Art in America, Volume 56, No. 5, September 1968, pp. 20-41.
 
2          Martin Friedman, “Introduction,” Naives and Visionaries. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in association with the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
 
3          Charley Drace, “The Saga of Outlaw Howard: The Story of Jesse Howard,” self published in booklet form in 1963, Jesse Howard Archive Collection, Kansas City Art Institute, also appeared in Westminster Columns, a newsletter published by Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, April/May 1963.
 
4          Text transcribed from a video tape interview of Roger Brown and his collection made by Intuit: the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (1995), with Richard Born (curator, David and Alfred Smart Museum of the University of Chicago) and Ken Indermark.
 
 
 
 

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Press Release

Jesse Howard & Roger Brown Now Read On opens at the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute
KCAI Website |
Fri, 2005-07-22

This innovative exhibition will explore parallel ideas and conceptual junctures in the works of Jesse Howard and Roger Brown, both of whom expressed deeply-held perceptions of tension, irony, ambiguity and contradiction in American social, political and religious culture.