ExhibitionsA Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection
Past Exhibition

A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection

May 14 – October 30, 2016

This exhibition both celebrates recent gifts from Gordon W. Bailey and demonstrates how the medium of wood inspires a wide range of creative mastery among contemporary self-taught artists.

Dog, 1980s

Raymond Coins
American, 1904–1998
Wood and paint
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.23Raymond Coins took advantage of the stone and wood that were abundant in the mountainous region of North Carolina where he lived. In this life-size dog, he let his material inspire the form of the animal, whose expressive arms and legs emerged from four branches extending from a section of mature cedar.

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Crucifixion, 1980s

Thornton Dial, Jr.
American, born 1953
Hubcap, paint, barbed wire, metal, and wood
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.32Thornton Dial, Jr., the son of the recently deceased Alabama artist, Thornton Dial, Sr., rendered this iconic Crucifixion effigy with found materials that are both natural and man-made. The central Jesus figure wears a crown of thorns made from barbed wire. The humanity of his persecuted body is echoed in details like the visible joint of the central wood piece and the face like hubcap, which also acts as a halo.

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Untitled, 1980s

Bessie Harvey
American, 1929–1994
Wood, paint, and beads
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.36Born in Dallas, Georgia in 1929, the artist Bessie Harvey had a profound respect for the natural world. Tree branches and roots inspired her sculpture. She suffered through a trying childhood, married as a teenager, and raised eleven children. Harvey was deeply spiritual and art making became a path for transcendence and self-expression.When Harvey looked at tree fragments like the root that is the basis for this untitled sculpture, she recognized their hidden spirit. “I discovered they’re alive, just like we are,” she said, adding, “The Lord showed me how to bring these faces out of these pieces of wood, so I could have somebody to talk to.”

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Atlanta Olympics, 1996

Leroy Almon
American, 1938–1997
Wood, paint, and newspaper
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.13Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Elijah Pierce, Georgia artist Leroy Almon carved both religious and popular subjects. Almon’s talent as a colorist shines in the detailed panel commemorating the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

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Wedding, 1980

Sulton Rogers
American, 1922–2003
Wood and paint
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2010.323, 2010.324. 2010.325Sulton Rogers carved to keep himself awake during his shifts at the Allied Chemical plant in Syracuse, New York. When he retired, his coworkers presented him with a gift of carving supplies, joking that “Now you do your carving on your own time.” Upon returning to his birthplace of Oxford, Mississippi, Rogers filled his home with small wooden sculptures inspired by people he encountered in his daily life and some he saw in his dreams, often infusing them with humor. In this Wedding scene, for instance, the bride extends her hand in marriage but a hint of fear lingers in the eyes of the groom.

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Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron, 1974

Elijah Pierce
American, 1892–1984
Wood and paint
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Henry “Hank” and Billye Suber Aaron, 2016.42Originally from Baldwyn, Mississippi, Pierce was among the millions of African Americans who left the South during the first half of the twentieth century. He settled in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1920s. Pierce, an ordained minister, turned to wood carving as a way to supplement his ministry. In 1974, after Atlanta Brave star Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run and eclipsed Babe Ruth’s record, Pierce carved the iconic portrait Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron, paying tribute to the slugger and his wife, Billye. Ebony magazine featured the Aarons on their July 1974 cover, which Pierce used as a reference for his sculpture. According to Gordon W. Bailey, “Pierce altered the composition of the cover photograph by upraising the Aarons’ eyes, thereby acknowledging their sustaining faith.”

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Untitled (Mother with Children Sharing a Meal), 1960s

Charles Butler
American, 1902–1978
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2016.20The beauty of the richly colored wood and the delicate notches from the artist’s tools are visible in this masterfully carved scene of a mother tenderly sharing a meal with her children. The sculptor behind the work, Charles Butler, was known among his African American community in Clearwater, Florida for his impressive carvings, which took on historical, biblical, political, and everyday subject matter.

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Charlie Mae, late 1980s

O. L. Samuels
American, born 1931
Wood, paint, glitter, plastic, rope, and artificial hair
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey, 2012.145The Georgia-born, Florida-based artist and former tree surgeon O. L. Samuels decorates his exuberant carvings with a signature formula of heated paint, glitter, sawdust, and glue. Samuels occasionally carves human figures and fantasy automobiles, but he is best known for dynamic animals like this Tennessee walking horse, “Charlie Mae.”

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Crawling Out of Hell, 1980s

Herbert Singleton
American, 1945–2007
Wood and paint
Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of David Choe, 2016.47Herbert Singleton’s brightly painted wooden sculpture records the struggle for ascendance and uplift that he experienced daily in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans where he lived. In this sculpture, a figure uses all his strength to conquer his demons and pull himself from the fiery depths of hell, beyond the rubble of an unjust society, to the tranquility represented by blue water and green earth above.

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A Cut Above presents the varied approaches of a group of artists to a common material. From discarded or inexpensive manufactured board to naturally occurring branches, roots, and stumps, wood is widely available to artists without access to or interest in traditional art supplies.

Some sculptors are uniquely receptive to how the natural properties of wood—its bulk, hue, grain, and essential spirit—harbor narrative, human, and animal forms that are not visible to others. The self-taught artists whose works are on display brilliantly reveal the inner life of their medium. Leroy Almon and Elijah Pierce communicate their insights through finely cut bas-relief panels, while Bessie Harvey and Ralph Griffin animate tree fragments into roughly hewn creatures.
On view for the first time, the exemplary wood carvings in this exhibition come from three substantial gifts that collector, scholar, and advocate Gordon W. Bailey has made to the Museum since 2010. His largest and most recent gift of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper is particularly transformative, strengthening the Museum’s holdings of work by Southern, African American, and self-taught artists.