ExhibitionsWay Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads
Past Exhibition

Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads

March 2 – May 19, 2019

In the early 1980s, poet Jonathan Williams invited photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley to hit the road “to document what tickled us, what moved us, and what (sometimes) appalled us in the Southeastern United States.” This exhibition brings to life their resulting encounters with self-taught artists who “make up beauty out of the air and out of nowhere,” such as Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, Thornton Dial, and Mary T. Smith, along with dozens of others.

Williams had intended for Mendes’s and Manley’s photographs to illustrate the poetic, often humorous reflections he compiled into a guidebook—“a true Wonder Book, a guide for a certain kind of imagination.” He titled it Walks to the Paradise Garden to honor Finster and his Edenic art environment as well as the many other artists who were “directly involved with making paradise for themselves.”

For the first time, Way Out There brings together Mendes’s and Manley’s enthralling photographs, works in the High’s permanent collection by some of the artists they profiled, and excerpts from Williams’s book, which recently was published. This exhibition takes its name from a title Mendes preferred for the book, Way Out People Way Out There, which alludes to both the highly original mindsets of the featured artists as well as their geographical distance from conventional art-world capitals.

Untitled (Figure with Halo), ca. 1986

Mary T. Smith
American, 1905–1995
Enamel paint on chipboard
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection, 1997.109Mary T. Smith received a visit at her home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, from Williams and Mendes in November 1989. Smith had a similar experience to that of David Butler in that many of the artworks she had displayed in her yard were stolen. Williams wrote: “The ‘collectors’ have pretty much taken it all away. Mrs. Smith is eighty-four, has had strokes, cannot speak or make more of her startling and poignant messages on pieces of tin. But she obviously loves for people to come and visit. When we’d try to tell her how much we enjoyed her garden, she’d smile and open her arms and say something like ‘IT’S ALL!!! IT’S ALL!!!’”

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Untitled (Photograph of Howard Finster and Paradise Garden), 1987–1988

Roger Manley
American, born 1952
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of the artist, 2006.79Howard Finster explained the development of his magical garden in an interview with Williams stating: “So it come to me to build a paradise and decorate it with the Bible. I went to the dump and started picking up glass and molding brick. I just saved everything but money. The Lord’d give me a picture of a night what to do the next day … When I started on it, I wasn’t expecting to excite the whole world … I wanted to put every verse in the Bible in this park. It’s about two acres. I write what I feel God’s word says … If I have to write it on a refrigerator or down on the walk out of marbles, I write it.”

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The Result of Me, 1990s

Lonnie Holley
American, born 1950
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Katherine Jentleson, 2016.37Lonnie Holley reflected on his place within a larger intergenerational community, telling Williams, “So I’m sure that everything that has happened—all the ancestors that have had to pass away in order for the Earth to be as it is—they was playing a part, like I’m playing a part in life today, just living and creating. Then I’ll fade away and kind of fertilize the soil around my children. Then they’ll live, and they’ll get children, and they’ll die to fertilize the soil around theirs.”

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All the Way from Chicago: 1. Paul Ling Low, 2. Annie Low, 3. Charlie Bee Low, 4. Chestafel Low, ca. 1987

Mose Tolliver
American, 1919–2006
Paint on wood
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection, 1999.101When Williams stopped in Montgomery, Alabama, to visit Mose Tolliver, he was taken with the amount of artwork Tolliver was producing on a daily basis. Williams wrote: “His house was full of paintings. He paints on everything, with anything. Maybe ten a day! A lot of his customers ask him to do this and to do that. He does, but not happily.” Williams continued with a poem he composed based on his conversations with Tolliver about the demand for his work.

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Sister Gertrude Morgan in Her Everlasting Gospel Revelation Mission, New Orleans, LA, 1974

Guy Mendes
American, born 1948
Gelatin silver printSister Gertrude Morgan rented a house in New Orleans that she called the Everlasting Gospel Revelation Mission, and this was where she started making art. The Mission was characterized by its white monochromatic walls. Mendes told about his time there: “Dressed in her white cap, frilly white dress, white stockings and shoes, she comes into the small room. She is playing a tambourine, singing; talking in measure. She sings loudly, through a homemade megaphone—her PA system requires no electricity. Sister Gertrude is on the air, announcing the departure of that Clean Train, telling people to get on board. Sister Gertrude is in the control tower, talking to the man upstairs, who is gliding around in a noiseless, lumpy sort of DC-6 that has no roof.… Jesus is steering with one hand, waving with the other.… Sister Gertrude is the stewardess, counseling and instructing the passengers en route. In the pouches on the backs of the seats are paintings by Sister Gertrude.”

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Vision Dream, 1993

Royal Robertson
American, 1930–1997
Markers, paint, ballpoint ink, and glitter on paper
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Carl and Marian Mullis, 2006.142Royal Robertson was a man of many names, including Patriarch Royal Prophet Robertson and Artistico Mystic Royal Robertson. He was just as eclectic as his various monikers suggest. Williams did not visit him personally, but he referred to the writings of Andy Nasisse when assessing Robertson’s artistic achievements.Nasisse wrote: “… [Robertson] has erected a somewhat scandalous barrage of signs and messages layered onto his house and out into the yard. Ranging in subject matter and professionally rendered, the signs warn of the end of the world, exclaim astrological aspects, advertise his amorous intentions, and indict his ex-wife for various adulterous crimes.… Robertson’s overall style of working could be described as a synthesis of Buck Rogers’s comics with Masonic symbols, West African motifs, astrological signs, Christian symbols, and vodun cosmograms. Inside the house, Royal’s obsessive tendencies are in full swing, with every available surface collaged and painted up with images and words that express a latent anger and emotional intensity that [are] overwhelming. At first, the complexity of his art and his speech patterns are almost incomprehensible, but in time a sad and poignant story begins to emerge, and the work has a way of growing on you.”

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Snakes, 1986

Jimmy Lee Sudduth
American, 1910–2007
House paint, earth pigments, and sugar or syrup on board
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase in honor of Tina A. Cox, Art Partners President, 2008–2009, with High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund, 2005.210.3Williams enjoyed his visit with Jimmy Lee Sudduth in Fayette, Alabama, so much he was inspired to turn the encounter into a poem, which is printed on the label in the exhibition.

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Pasaquoyan Man with Ritual Headdress and Levitation Suit, ca. 1965–1975

Eddie Owens Martin (St. EOM)
American, 1908–1986
Enamel and beads on concrete over wire mesh
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of the Marion County Historical Society, 1992.9In 1950, St. EOM moved from New York City back to his home state of Georgia. There, in the small rural town of Buena Vista, he created a world where the wisdom of ancient civilizations fused with his utopian ideas about the future.Williams wrote about how to find this remote locale, which is also depicted in this painting: “Go north on Highway 41. In about a mile, veer left on Highway 137, towards Cusseta. Three more miles, take the second paved right, just before you get to Kinchafoonee Creek. Go about half a mile, and where you see cane and bamboo, angle right off onto the dirt driveway. There, just like in The Wizard of Oz, suddenly everything turns Technicolor: THE LAND OF PASAQUAN, ‘where the past and present and the future and everything else come together.’ No longer are you in the desolate pine woods between the big Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee river valleys. No longer are you next to the paratroopers of Fort Benning. You are not drowning in kudzu, Protestant totalitarianism, whorehouses, the drumming of Bible-whackers. You are at the entrance of the finest folk-art environment in the Southeast.”

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Edgar Tolson, Campton, KY, 1974

Guy Mendes
American, born 1948
Gelatin silver printWilliams referred to Edgar Tolson as “an absolute wreck of a man.” This was partially due to the fact that Tolson had fathered eighteen children and suffered from alcoholism. Tolson worked in rural Kentucky as a farmer, carpenter, stonemason, chairmaker, barn builder, coal miner, and preacher. After having a stroke in 1957, he was unable to return to many of these jobs, so he turned to wood carving as way to pass the time.Williams wrote of this period in Tolson’s life: “He took to carving wood with his pocket knife, to amuse his family and friends, to help expiate all those fundamentalist sins that swarmed through his head when the liquor got to him. His obsessive theme was the Fall of Man.… Edgar’s Adam & Eve are, above all, sobering figures. They stare at us from some remote time and place—part fish, part bird, part reptile, part human, along the evolutionary chain.”


Front Gate, St. EOM’s Land of Pasaquan, near Buena Vista, GA, 1986

Guy Mendes
American, born 1948
Pigmented inkjet printIn 1986, ST. EOM committed suicide. He died much as he had lived, on his own terms. Williams wrote of his friend’s passing: “ST. EOM put a pistol to his head, pulled the trigger, departed for Outer Cosmic Infinity, and left us miserable suckers to the wiles of the Justice Department, the Supreme Court, Pat Robertson, William F. Buckley, Lyndon LaRouche, and all the rest. Why did he do it? His kidneys were going, his prostate was already gone, his heart was a patch-job. Reasons enough, but there was a strain of ancient nobility in the manner of his going. He was, after all, a man who insisted on calling all his own shots.”


Georgia Blizzard, Glade Spring, VA, 1985

Roger Manley
American, born 1952
Gelatin silver print“Anybody with half an ear and the top half of an imagination already knows that a person named Georgia Blizzard has to be somebody very special,” observed Williams. Blizzard, who was of mixed Irish and Apache ancestry, began molding local clay as a child, growing up poor in Appalachian Virginia.When Williams tracked her down in the remote town of Glade Spring, she told him, “I had the feel of the clay. When I think back to my childhood, I can get back to myself. It seems like you can create anything if you still have that childhood magic with you.” While she began by making toys, in adulthood her vessels served another therapeutic purpose: “I can get rid of taunting, unknowing things by bringing them out where I can see them.… I feel the need to do it. It’s all I have left.”


J. B. Murray, Glascock County, GA, 1987

Roger Manley
American, born 1952
Gelatin silver printJohn Bunion (J. B.) Murray received a visit from Williams and Manley in 1985 at his home near Sparta, Georgia. Murray was known for his divinatory writing inspired by the Afro-Atlantic world and, according to Williams, was “producing some 1,500 drawings and examples of ‘spirit script’ in his later years. By dint of reading his messages through a vial of sacred water from his well, angels and select holy persons could decipher his beautiful texts. Us witches and devils couldn’t.”


If you ever travel the Deepest South, please take a respectable guidebook with you.

–Jonathan Williams, Walks to the Paradise Garden

Mapping a Journey

Between 1983 and 1992, Jonathan Williams, Guy Mendes, and Roger Manley visited artists and their art environments in nine states and around 74 towns. This map shows the many stops they made. Some of the states they visited most frequently were North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia. Florida was the only Southeastern state they intentionally excluded. Williams explained his reasoning: “Ever since Frederick Delius [an English composer who created a celebrated orchestral suite dedicated to Florida] left Picolata, Florida, in 1886, the place has given me the willies.

Follow in the footsteps of Williams, Mendes, and Manley and take a road trip of your own! Grab a friend and hit the road to find your own paradise.

Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta
This exhibition is made possible by

Exhibition Series Sponsors

Premier Exhibition Series Supporter

The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporter

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters

Tom and Susan Wardell
Rod Westmoreland

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Lucinda W. Bunnen
Corporate Environments
Marcia and John Donnell
W. Daniel Ebersole and Sarah Eby-Ebersole
Peggy Foreman
Robin and Hilton Howell
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Marjorie and Carter Crittenden, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, Massey Charitable Trust, RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund, and Dr. Diane L. Wisebram