Exhibit Title
Mary T. Smith: Mississippi Metal On Highway 51
Exhibit Description
Mary Tillman Smith arrived in Hazlehurst, Mississippi shortly after the dissolution of her second marriage. She had promptly ended her first after just two months, when she discovered that her husband had been deceiving her. Smith's second was brought to a close by the boss of her sharecropping husband, who didn’t appreciate her exceptionally precise record keeping. When Smith confronted the boss, revealing that her husband had been paid a mere 1.5% of what he should have received for the year’s labor, the husband was given the choice between his job and his wife. He chose the job. Freed from unpalatable domestic arrangements, Smith moved to Hazlehurst, the largest town in the region, then home to around 3,000 people. There, she had a son, and the boy’s father built her a house in which to raise him. Understandably, given her life experience, she chose not to marry the father. Smith’s house sat on an acre of land overlooking Highway 51, the busiest road in Hazlehurst and the primary north-south artery between New Orleans and the industrial centers of the upper midwest in the years prior to the construction of the Interstate system. Nearby was a junkyard, from which Smith began dragging home a plethora of discarded corrugated tin. Using an ax to split the metal into strips, she then whitewashed them and wove them into a fence, creating a structure which both demarcated and brought attention to her space. The fence, along with numerous other structures Smith built around her house and land, gradually became home to her paintings. "Mississippi Metal On Highway 51" presents a collection of Mary T. Smith’s earliest paintings, completed in the 1970s and early ‘80s. They take for a canvas those same hand cut sheets of tin that she used for building material. Bold portraits in black, red, and green float on a stark white background. The work from this period is often coupled with slogans or phrases, with varying degrees of legibility, which function as devotionals, admonishments, questions, or cryptic self reminders. Smith was a devout believer, and many of her portraits were depictions of Christ or other religious figures, marking the long history of Christian iconography as an obvious influence. Her house also sat within eyesight of two large billboards along the highway, and one could easily draw a line between the language of advertising Smith saw constantly – a striking image paired with a succinct phrase, calibrated to wedge an idea into the mind of the viewer – and the language she began to develop in these paintings. The ideas that Smith wished to communicate are simple and powerful. They stretch deep into the past, yet remain immediately recognizable and utterly of our time. Work which so powerfully calls to mind both cave paintings––perhaps our earliest examples of fine art––and the ultra-contemporary pervasiveness of the selfie must truly have tapped into a certain universality of experience. Smith’s paintings celebrate the essences of human life: profound spirituality, and joy in the face of hardship. An undeniable eye for shape and color coupled with her determination to be free and to express that freedom left a lifetime’s worth of monuments to presence, both her own and a collective presence extending outwards from that home in Hazlehurst to include her friends, community, and ultimately all of us who gaze upon her work.
Company / Organization
Institute 193
Venue Description
Founded in 2009, Institute 193 embraces the notion that groundbreaking contemporary art can and does emerge outside of large metropolitan centers. Institute 193 provides artists from Kentucky and the Southeastern United States—selected not by commercial viability, but by the quality and relevance of their work—with exhibition and publication opportunities. It also endeavors to help these artists gain broader media exposure and foster connections in art markets across the globe. Institute 193’s original gallery space is located in Lexington, Kentucky, a mid-sized city with a vibrant creative community. Nevertheless, Lexington lacks a museum or a center for contemporary art. Institute 193 fills this cultural void by hosting musical performances, film screenings, lectures, and other community-driven events in addition to visual art exhibitions.
215 N Limestone
Hours of Operation
Wednesday-Saturday, 11AM-6PM
Contact Name
Galleries and Museums participating in the 2021 LexArts HOP.