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Missouri Folk Artist Tackles Free Speech And Religion

Chief Curator Jeffrey Uslip explains the personal narrative of artist Jesse Howard
Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

At a time when religion and free speech often seem at odds, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is hosting a show that unites these principles. According to Chief Curator Jeffrey Uslip artist Jesse Clyde Howard’s work is one gigantic expression of religion as an act of free speech.

“This work is honest, it is absolutely precise, it is unmediated, there’s no pulling punches,” said Uslip. “This is who Jesse was. He was a staunch believer in free speech and the first amendment.”

Howard’s work is a catalog of critical rants and Bible quotes hand-painted on wooden signs. The Contemporary Art Museum is displaying dozens of these signs alongside a selection of Howard’s writings. The show of Howard's work, “Thy Kingdom Come” is part of the museum’s spring season. According to Uslip the work is one unified expression of religion as an act of free speech.

“In Jesse’s show, the Bible was used as a way to teach people how he thought they should live their life,” Uslip said.

Howard’s sign art was displayed extensively throughout his property in Fulton, Mo., before his death in 1993. The artist was born in Shamrock, Mo., in 1885 and traveled extensively through the western United States performing manual labor before returning to the state of his birth. During his travels Howard was exposed to hand-painted signs and advertisement prominent during The Great Depression.

“When Jesse took jobs in the West he became familiar with this vernacular signage, the power of text, the power of advertising, and how signage was really a staple in this western landscape,” Uslip said.

This exposure helped Howard develop the self-taught painting style characteristic of all his work. Once settled in Missouri, Howard covered his property’s fences, house, outbuildings, in signs with personal anecdotes and religious quotes.

Ann Horton-Lopez teaches at the University of North Carolina Pembroke and was in graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia when she first learned of Howard in the early ’80s. After speaking with Howard’s wife, Maude Linton, Horton-Lopez traveled to meet the artist. Howard was in his late ’90s when they met.

Jesse Howard at his home in Fulton
Credit Jesse Howard. Courtesy the Kansas City Art Institute.
Jesse Howard at his home in Fulton, Mo.

“He kind of hobbled and walked with a cane, but he had a twinkle in his eye and he was still working full time,” said Horton-Lopez. “He said that even though his body ached and old age wasn’t fun at all he couldn’t help but work because he really enjoyed it.”

During one visit, Horton-Lopez entered the Howard’s barn and saw a collection of shoe soles brought home by Maude Linton from her work at theStride Rite shoe factory. Howard picked up a shoe and showed it to Horton-Lopez.

“He showed me a sole with my name on it and he said, ‘See I’m going to save your soul,’” said Horton-Lopez commenting on his sense of humor.

According to Horton-Lopez, Howard would give tours of his property, and insisted that people sign guest-books and state their thoughts at the end. She maintained a relationship with the artist until his death. Maude Linton moved in with her daughter and gave Horton-Lopez these guest books. She still has those books chronicling responses to the artist’s work.

The artist’s work has been exhibited at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Philadelphia College of Art, and appears in collections by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, the Kansas City Art Institute; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Jesse Howard’s show “Thy Kingdom Come” runs through April as part of the museum’s spring season.