Mary Tillman Smith was born in 1904 in southern Mississippi, the third of thirteen children born to an African-American sharecropping family. She worked on the land and as a cook for most of her life; since she was extremely hard of hearing, her ability to communicate with people around her was limited. As a child, she preferred to stay apart from her siblings and draw in the dust on her own.
She brought her only son up alone following her second divorce. She retired in around 1978, after a lifetime of poverty and suffering that could so easily have crushed any aspiration to creativity, and immediately set about dividing her yard into a series of spaces decorated with patterns. This enabled her to rise above her modest circumstances to create a unique vision of the world where art became the supreme interpreter of forces that were greater than her, lending her new dignity. She painted what she saw around her on planks of wood or sheets of corrugated iron – portraits of friends and neighbours, allegorical figures, and farm animals, mainly using just one or two colours. She occasionally added signs or slogans reflecting her deep, abiding love for her God. On the roof of her house she placed boards with messages for drivers passing in their cars.
Mary T. Smith died in 1995 aged 91, leaving a several hundred paintings of unique, elemental power. Her work was featured in the exhibition Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in Our Time at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1988 and at the gallery christian berst in the exhibition mary t. smith : mississippi shouting. She recently has been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
a different mountain : selected works from the arnett collection, marlborough gallery, london, united kingdom, from november 21th 2019 to january 18th, 2020.
flying high, künstlerinnen der art brut, curators : ingried brugger, hannah rieger, veronika rudorfer, kunstforum, vienna, austria, from february 15th to june 23rd, 2019.
leben in art brut, hannah rieger colleciton, bildraum bodensee, bregenz, austria, from july 14th to august 16th, 2018.
the museum of everything, mona (museum of old and new art), berriedale, australia, from june 10th, 2017, to april 2nd, 2018,
living in art brut, 123 works from the hannah rieger collection, museumkrems, krems an der donau, austria, from september 8th to october 26th, 2017.
revelations: art from the african american south, fine arts museum of san francisco, san francisco, united states, from june 3rd, 2017 to april 1st, 2018.
color line, les artistes africains-américains et la ségréation, musée du quai branly, paris, from october 4th to january 15th, 2017.
art brut live, dox centre for contemporary art, prague, czech republic, from march 27th to august 17th, 2015.
art brut, collection abcd/bruno decharme, la maison rouge, paris, from october 17th, 2014 to january 18th, 2015.
mary t. smith, mississipi shouting, christian berst art brut, paris, from january 22nd to march 3rd, 2013.
american outsiders, the black south, christian berst art brut, paris, from june 19th to july 18th, 2009.
treasures to go, traveling exhibition, smithsonian american art museum, washington d.c., united state, from january, 2000 to may, 2003.
outside the mainstream: folk art in our time, high museum of art, atlanta, united states, from may 19th to august 12th, 1988.
exhibition catalogue, flying high, künstlerinnen der art brut, ingried brugger, hannah rieger, veronika rudorfer, kunstforum, vienna, kehrer verlag, heidelberg, 2019.
exhibition catalogue, leben in art brut, hannah rieger collection, bildraum bodensee, seestraße, 2018.
visions solidaires pour demain, "le numérique est-il compatible avec le solidaire", n°2, 2017/2018, cognacq-jay fondation, december 2017, p.88.
exhibition catalogue, living in art brut, 123 works from the hannah rieger collection, museumkrems, bad vöslau, 2017.
exhibition catalogue, the color line : les artistes africains-américains et la ségrégation, musée du quai branly-jacques chirac, flammarion, paris, 2016.
art brut collection abcd/bruno decharme, flammarion, paris, 2014.
exhibition catalogue, art brut collection abcd/bruno decharme, la maison rouge, paris, 2015.
"mary t. smith", christian berst, in kunst, die verbindet, hannah rieger (hg.), vienna, 2014.
exhibition catalogue, mary t. smith, texts by daniel soutif, philip m. jones and christian berst, christian berst art brut ed., paris, 2013.
voodoo child, mary t. smith et j. b. murray, abcd le journal n° 5, abcd, 2013.
exhibition catalogue, american outsiders I, Paris, christian berst art brut ed., paris, 2009.
outsider art sourcebook, raw vision ltd, london, 2009.
souls grown deep. african american art of the south. vol. II., paul arnett and william s. arnett, tinwood books, atlanta, 2001.
let it shine, self-taught art from the t. marshall haln collection, l.e. spriggs, j. cubbs and l. roscoe, hartigan university press of mississipi for the high museum of art, atlanta, 2001.
l’art outsider, art brut et création hors normes au XXe siècle, colin rhodes, thames & hudson ed., new york, 2001.
her name is someone, william arnett, in raw vision #31, summer, 2000.
souls grown deep. african american vernacular art of the south. vol. I, paul arnett and william s. arnett, tinwood, atlanta, 2000.
art in mississipi, 1720-1980, patti black, university press of mississipi in association with the mississipi historical society and the mississipi department of archives and history, jackson, 1998.
« mary (mary t.) tillman smith 1904-1995 », kogan lee, in folk art 20, n°4, winter 1995-96.
american self-taught : paintings and drawings by outsiders artists, frank maresca and roger ricco, alfred a. knopf, new york, 1993.
passionate visions of the american south : self-taught artists from 1940 to the present, alice yelen, new orleans museum of art with the university press of mississipi, jackson, 1993.
museum of american folk art encyclopedia of twentieth-century american folk art and artists, c. rosenak and j. rosenak, abbeville press, new york, 1990.
baking in the sun, visionary images from the south : selections from the collection of Sylvia and warren lowe, university art musuem (lafayette, la.), 1987.
- American Folk Art Museum, New-York (United States)
- High Museum of Art, Atlanta (United States)
- abcd collection, montreuil (France)
- Treger Saint Silvestre collection, Porto (Portugal)
- Smithsonian Museum Of American Art, Washington (United States)
- Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans (United States)
- Hannah Rieger collection, Vienne (Austria)
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York (United States)
- Fine arts museums of San Francisco, San Francisco (United States)
selective press review
- Ruée vers l'art brut authors Noémie Barré, photos Nathalie Baetens in Coté Paris n°29, october-november 2013.
- L'étoile du sud authors Séverine Kodjo-Grandvaux in Jeune Afrique, February 24 2013.
- Mary T. Smith Mississipi shouting authors Bénédicte Phillipe in Télérama Sortir, February 20 2013.
- Le quotidien sans artifices de Mary T. Smith authors Sonia Desprez in A nous Paris, February 18, 2013.
- Un cri passage du Mississipi authors in animula vagula, February 16 2013.
- Black art folk esthétique solaire authors Eric Tariant in Le journal des arts, February 15 2013.
- Mary Tillman Smith, Mississipi Shouting authors Philippe Godin in ParisArt.com, February 11 2013.
- Sacré art brut authors in Version Femina, February 10 2013.
- Rencontre avec Christian Berst : l’art brut, une esthétique de l’altérité ? authors Delphine Neimon in The Artchemists, February 3 2013.
- L'art brut afro américain authors Séphanie Pioda in La Gazette de Drouot, February 1, 2013.
- Mary T. Smith à la galerie Christian Berst authors Sophie Lesort in toutelaculture.com, january 31 2013.
- Mary T Smith peint le blues authors Dominique Poiret in Liberation next, january 31 2013.
- Pourquoi l'art brut suscite-t-il autant d'intérêt ? authors roxana azimi in Le Quotidien de l'Art, January 15 2013.
- Mary T. Smith Mississippi Shouting authors in L'officiel galeries & musée, January - February 2013.
- American outsiders - The Black South authors in Télérama sortir, July 15th 2009.