Title of Work
Date of Work
35mm color slide
Art & Design Study Collection: James Smith Pierce Collection
UND Art Collections Repository
Born in Brooklyn, New York, James Smith Pierce received his PhD in art history from Harvard University. During his career as a professor, Pierce also became an accomplished artist, whose artworks were included in important exhibitions (including a show on land art at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC) and books on contemporary earthworks and site-specific sculpture. Pierce was also a photographer, exhibition curator, and art collector.
Mary Tillman Smith was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi in 1905. Born to a large sharecropper family, Smith had a hearing impairment which caused her to feel isolated from other children as well as her 12 siblings. Smith completed school up to a fifth-grade level, which was well-educated for a poor woman of color at the time.
Smith began painting in the 1980’s; her paintings were displayed in her yard outside of her house in Hazlehurst, MS and covered the landscape. This concept was known as a ‘yard show’ which was a way to express personal beliefs that were previously hidden from the public. This became more popular following the assignation of MLK Jr. which opened the residents of the south to be more willing and push for their voices to be heard. Smith used this as an opportunity to express herself and ideas she had since childhood. She was a wonderfully independent woman that knew what she wanted and went after it which shows throughout her pieces and determination to work through the difficult times in her life.
Her art displayed both personal and spiritual themes and was often created on corrugated roofing tin found nearby. Smith also used many different styles throughout her art by using only black paint sometimes and then others were sprinkled with bright colors. She even created and used her own painting language throughout despite her ability to write. This could have been a jab at those in her community who assumed that she was ignorant and crazy, despite her ability to spell and even write in cursive.
She had many muses throughout her art. She at first painted and created herself in her art but then later branched out to paint neighbors and family members as more of a diary for herself publicly in her front yard. Smith’s faith was very important to her and therefore was also in the forefront of many of her pieces. She worked hard throughout her career to depict many different scenes from the Bible, the Christian Trinity, and many different phrases sharing her faith.
Smith found commercial success quickly and her work was in high demand even in her lifetime. Smith had a stroke late in her life which reduced her artistic output, and she stopped painting entirely a few years before her death.
Mary Tillman Smith died in 1995 at the age of 91. She left behind a prominent legacy. She lived a life of exception; for a disabled black woman of humble beginnings to reach her level of fame and notoriety was an arduous task. Her original installation site is no longer in existence, but her art is highly coveted and is now all in the hands of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC as well as private collectors.
Photograph of a painted shed.
Image is provided for educational purposes only. © University of North Dakota. All rights reserved.
Original slide in very good condition. Digitally preserved 2020.