High Exhibit Celebrates Self-Taught Southern Artists

The Rev. Howard Finster in his Paradise Garden Summerville GA, 1982. Finster is among the artists featured in the High Museum of Art’s new exhibit “Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads.” (Courtesy of the artistand Institute 193. © Guy Mendes)

During a series of road trips throughout the South in the 1980s and ’90s, photographers Guy Mendes, Roger Manley and poet Jonathan Williams documented the work of self-taught artists across the region.

They were there to capture the work for posterity and to tip their hats to the artists in appreciation.

Mendes said Williams instilled in both him and Manley that they had a responsibility to the artists to show them respect.

“It was an occasion,” Mendes said. “We were there to make their picture.”

Photographer Guy Mendes reflects on the trips he took throughout the South to capture the work of self-taught artists in the region. (Courtney Kueppers/Atlanta PlanIt)

Now, the fruits of their labor is on display in the High Museum of Art’s new exhibit “Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads.”

The trio collectively trekked to about 74 towns in nine states, visiting artists and the art environments they created.

From Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia, to St. Eom’s Pasaquan near Buena Vista, Georgia, and far beyond, they traversed the region’s most remote backroads in a car they called “okra.”

Howard Finster’s “The Angel of the Lord” can be seen in the exhibit. (© Howard Finster/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

“Mendes and Manley aspired not only to record the distant and difficult to access, but to engage in a layered visual conversation with their fellow artists,” Associate Curator of Photography Gregory Harris said.

“The photographs in the exhibition emphasize their impulse to create evocative images while also interpreting and preserving the creations of others.”

(Map courtesy of the High Museum of Art)

The exhibit itself is a collaboration between the museum’s folk and self-taught art and photography departments.

Katherine Jentleson, the High’s Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art, said in a release that she hopes the exhibit inspires people to go out on the road themselves and explore some of the places featured.

“With this project, we are celebrating the important but often neglected legacy of unconventional Southern creatives and highlighting how these artists truly embraced and inspired one another,” said Katherine Jentleson, the High’s Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art, in a release.

“We are thrilled to bring works from our collection together with photographs that will transport viewers to these Southern artists’ worlds.”

Throughout the exhibit, bold graphics depict words adapted from poems by Williams, inspired by roadside signs seen throughout their travels. (Courtney Kueppers/Atlanta PlanIt)

Williams’ text has also been published in a companion book, “Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey,” with photos by Mendes and Manley.

The exhibit is on view until May 19.

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