Bessie Harvey (1929-1994)

"Visionary artists are motivated by deeply held perceptions and experiences of the spiritual world. Not merely religious, their lives and art are imbued with a profound personal sense of the aspects of life that transcend the physical. Bessie Harvey is considered to be one of America's foremost visionary artists. Her art arose from her fundamental beliefs in the relationships of man, nature and God and is a testament to the enduring acts of faith and creativity." (Collector Jay Wehnert in The Intuitive Eye.)

Born in Dallas, Georgia in 1929, Harvey was the seventh of thirteen children, and "There was nothing. In the morning, you'd just get up, go looking for whatever you could find, and if you had one meal that day, then you'd made progress." She attended school until 4th grade, and then at fourteen married Charles Harvey with whom she had five children by her early twenties. She moved to Tennessee with those children and married again and bore six more children. She worked first as a domestic, and then as part of a hospital housekeeping staff.

Tongues Cannot Tell.

Tongues Cannot Tell.

And yet, already as a child she created dolls for herself out of whatever she could find; and then as an adult she began translating into physical reality the spiritual visions that she saw in tree branches and roots that she embellished with beads, paint and clothing. At the hospital's annual art show in 1977, she showed a piece she called Banda. "It was a big bird that would fly me away when troubles were so strong that I couldn’t take any more." She sold Banda; and for the rest of her life she enjoyed great success and recognition for her stream of similar creations.

Harvey had a special regard for tongues, as she explained in an interview towards the end of her life, "He speaks that all animals and everything in the earth has been tamed by mankind except the tongue, and it cannot be tamed, tongues coming out of the lying mouth, and it's saying to the world today, that the tongue cannot be tamed. So before you use it to say things that will hurt yourself or someone else, remember that love covers a multitude of faults, and it's a fault to go around hurting others." 

"My art has been blessed and sent all over, and I’ve been seen on television, and all of this is just to say that God is God, and there is no other. ... The art is his, and I’m blessed to be the one to do it, and in it there is no evil, because in him there is no evil. He lives in me, and I in him, so anybody that purchased the work, or looks upon the work, I truly believe you are blessed." (From a Souls Grown Deep 1994 interview by Jenifer P. Borum.)

Tongues Cannot Tell was part of the 2017 exhibit Woman Made that showcased works by women artists in the Museum's permanent collection. 

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This post is # 27 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.