Introduction: Self-Taught Apocalpticism
At a cursory glance, terms such as “folk art,” “outsider art,” “visionary art,” “vernacular art,” and “self-taught art” don’t seem to correlate with “apocalypticism,” “millennialism,” and “dispensationalism.” However, when speaking or writing about American Southern self-taught visionary artists, religious artistic expression of the apocalyptic is an unavoidable subject. The American southern states—often referred to as the Bible Belt—are rooted in Protestant Evangelical Christian religion, and one major tenant of this prominent faith is the ceaseless message that everybody should repent and accept Christ now, for the end is coming soon, like a thief in the night, and soon it will be too late for God to save our souls from damnation. The visionary artists of the American South can’t escape this way of thinking, and this idea that the end is near is ever-present in their art.
Defining Self-Taught Visionary Art
In his article “Aesthetics of Everyday Life,” folklorist Michael Owen Jones argues that all of us are self-taught artists because we all enjoy a certain aesthetic quality to our lives. It’s in the way we dress, our dietary choices, the way we manicure our lawns, or how we decorate our houses. These are decisions we make based on what we find pleasing to the eye. Most of us do not attend a formal school, college, or university to learn how to make these choices; these choices are rooted in behaviors observed in everyday life. This is folklore: “behaviors that we learn, teach, use, or display in face-to-face interactions. In everyday life we convey much of what we know, think, believe, and feel in readily distinguishable, and often symbolic ways.” Some self-taught artistic expressions, however, are more culturally predominant than others. Howard Finster, Myrtice West, James Hampton, Annie Lucas, Prophet Royal Robertson, Minnie Evans, and Sister Gertrude Morgan are among the hundreds of self-taught artists that have evangelized biblical prophesies of hope and redemption, or curse and damnation, to the American people through their visions, art, and written messages.
Another well-known folklorist, Daniel Wojcik, writes in his article “Outsider Art, Vernacular Traditions, Trauma, and Creativity,” that outsider (also known as self-taught or visionary) art is “made by people free of artistic training who were ‘untouched’ by culture, and existed outside of or against cultural norms, thus serving as a critique of the pretentious and artificial nature of contemporary art.” Wojcik writes about many outsider artists and their connections to God and the apocalypse. For instance, the self-taught artist James Hampton constructed a monument for the arrival of Christ and his millennial reign entitled The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, which wasn’t discovered in his garage until after his death. Through his art, Hampton hoped to facilitate the prophetic Word of God.
Defining Apocalypticism and Millennialism
Wojcik also wrote about contemporary American apocalypticism in his book The End of the World As We Know It. Although his book encompasses a great deal of apocalyptic theory, from the biblical Revelation of John to the Mayan calendar to UFOs, the book is useful in that it describes the traditional use of the word apocalypse and contrasts the word with its contemporary meaning. Wojcik explains, “The term apocalypse came into theological use in the second century to designate a specific type of literature characterized by mysterious revelations communicated by a supernatural figure that involve the ultimate defeat of evil, the judgment of the world, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.” Today, we typically use the term apocalypse to denote any kind of cataclysm, with or without divine intervention as part of the plot. According to Wojcik, millennialism is a term “usually applied to the study of apocalyptic beliefs, and refer[s] to ideas about the imminent transformation of current social order and the expectation of a perfect, new world of harmony and justice.” Through the understanding of these terms and how they are used, we can now examine the works of a few of the more well-known artists, such as those listed above.
Visionary Artists: The Lay Pastors of the South
Charles Reagan Wilson is an expert in Southern-American religious art, and he writes in his article “Self-Taught Art, the Bible, and Southern Creativity,” that the most prominent theme among self-taught artists is millennialism, “with its ferocious image of the Apocalypse.” Writing about these self-taught artists, Wilson says, “Whether ministers or not, self-taught artists witnessed for their faith. Self-taught artists in the South have shown the most primal expression of southern religiosity, the confidence among many evangelicals in their direct access to the Bible and Holy Spirit.” Evangelism is the prime objective of Southern self-taught visionaries. Wilson mentions the artist Annie Lucas, who says that her art is meant to influence people to read the Scriptures, and that oftentimes they are surprised that these images are in fact in the Bible. The artists were and are considered by many to be preachers; however, most of these preachers are not formally ordained. Wilson argues that for these visionaries, art is how they proselytize their joint message of damnation and salvation through the destruction of this world and the building of a new world. These artists “grew up in a place that took religion seriously and that allowed its creative spirits to pursue their visions.”
Wilson further traces religious expression in the southern United States of America in his book Judgment and Grace in Dixie. In the chapter titled “Southern Religion and Visionary Art,” Wilson explores the use of self-taught visionary art in the dissemination of Southern Protestant Evangelical ideas. He argues that an understanding of religious millennialism is essential for the understanding of Southern religious art, saying, “Mainstream southern Protestants do not speak in tongues, faith heal, or see visions, yet their own biblicism and belief in subjective religious experience, when seized upon by the poor and the suffering, can lead to visions of other worlds of justice achieved through millennial retribution rewarding the spiritually faithful.”
The Bible is seen as God’s own words, and these words are important. Wilson mentions that the vernacular art of the South isn’t just in images, but also in words. Sometimes these words stand alone, like the often-seen roadside sign saying “Jesus Saves” in large, bright letters, but oftentimes it is the combination of images and words that stand out as uniquely Southern religious art. Wilson discusses visionary artist Howard Finster’s obsession with the apocalyptic writings of Daniel and John as a classic example of this combining of word and image. Finster often wrote more words on his paintings than there were images. The words used in apocalyptic art are “often harsh” and teach viewers the importance of “sanctification.”
Wilson also asks when these artists began emerging as prophets of God. Traditional Baptist and Methodist theologies don’t normally include an emphasis on the gifts of the spirit in the way that Pentecostal denominations do, yet this is the way self-taught artists express their need to create this art, as the moving of the spirit or the voice of God’s direction. Furthermore, the premillennial theology most often depicted in self-taught apocalyptical art emerged from Pentecostal teachings, but seem to have been incorporated into the art of men and women who identify mostly with the Baptist and Methodist denominations. Interestingly enough, Wilson does see a correlation between the rise of the Pentecostal movement and the emergence of visionary art.
Literal and Figurative Interpretations of Apocalyptic Messages
Carol Crown takes a look at the concepts of dispensational premillennialism and of amillennialism through the lens of visionary artists Myrtice West and Howard Finster in her article “Visions of the Sacred in Self-Taught Art,” which is published in the book Sacred and Profane. Crown says that West’s “interpretation of end time events [is] characteristic of a specific kind of Christianity and a widely influential theology known as dispensational premillennialism.” The concept comes from a literal reading of the Bible, and demarcates the history and imagined future of the earth into seven periods of time, called dispensations. According to this theology, we are currently living in the sixth dispensation, and we can expect the seventh dispensation to begin when Christ reigns on earth for one thousand years. Myrtice West takes a literal approach to her artistic expression of the Book of Revelation, depicting the twenty-two-chapter book in scenes over the course of thirteen paintings, known as the “Revelations” series. However, there is one painting in which she did not interpret the images of Revelation literally: Satan Takes Over, the eighth painting in the series. In Satan Takes Over, West incorporates modern day images of a school, the Statue of Liberty, and a church, among other things. According to Crown, West’s use of anachronistic syncretism “proclaims that Evil pervades the world and that God’s judgment is imminent: the end time clock is ticking, time is running out, soon Good and Evil must engage in cosmic battle, and God will be triumphant.” Although West did paint one scene in an abstract way, Crown writes that her art is “more dogmatic, clear-cut, and analytical,” while the art of Howard Finster is “more idiosyncratic, experiential, and emotional.” Finster built a garden, his vision of the New Jerusalem, in the swampy junkyard behind his house, which he named Paradise Garden. His art depicts the same urgency to repent of evil and turn to God, but he also sees God as a timeless being, and the Book of Revelation as a metaphorical story of rejection and redemption. This apocalyptic view is called amillennialism: the idea that the history of the world unfolds, and will continue to unfold, in a cycle of God’s people loving and then rejecting Him.
“The End Is Near!”: Urgency in Artistic Expression
In a tribute to Howard Finster after his death in 2001, Liza Kirwin wrote, “One could say that all artists are visionaries, but Finster was tuned to a special frequency.” He was truly a unique individual who could captivate everybody he came across, and his only mission in life was to spread the Word of God. Kirwin was fortunate enough to have met him while conducting folklore fieldwork, and remembers, “He thought that good Christians were scarce.” This thought is common among the visionary artists of the American South, which is why there is an undying urgency in their art.
In keeping with that urgency, in their article “That Ol’ Time Religion,” Young and Vintinner stated, “Each piece [of Finster’s] is part of his crusade to save the world before it is too late.” After she finished her “Revelations” series, West continued to paint visions from the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel, which are also apocryphal books of the Bible. According to Young and Vintinner, she hoped to educate others about God’s word. The authors continue their analysis of folk artists with the anti-demonic art of Prophet Royal Robertson, and find that the same message is clear, that the end is near and all who are not right with God should repent.
Christ’s Return As an End to Suffering
Going back to Daniel Wojcik, “In studying the lives of people described as outsiders, one notices that a number of them created art in response to adversity, suffering, or personal crisis.” Myrtice West certainly had personal crisis in her life, as she watched helplessly as her daughter and grandchildren boarded a plane to Japan, and then later witnessed her ex-son-in-law shoot and kill her daughter. She created her art “to keep from going crazy.”
There are other kinds of adversity and suffering that we find in the American South. Sharon Patton wrote about African-American self-taught artists in her article “Spiritual Visions and Allegory.” She says that the artists “Minnie Evans and Sister Gertrude Morgan were inspired by and motivated by visions that they comprehended as messages from God.” Both of these women focused most of their artistic expression on images they gleaned from the Book of Revelation, and both say that the inspiration for these paintings came directly from God. This is a common theme among self-taught visionary artists of the South and is repeated in most of the other articles in my research. Patton focuses much of her thesis on the garden-like flowery images in Evans’ paintings as symbols of “beauty, tranquility, rebirth, a harmonious world, and sexuality,” which are important themes to the feminist model of understanding women artistry. As for Morgan, Patton says that she explained her art as God moving her hand, and that historian Henry H. Mitchell claims Morgan’s art “unites ancient biblical insights with modern experience to give some firm word about God’s will for today.” You can see this syncretism in her painting New Jerusalem, as the cityscape most closely resembles the black impoverished French Quarter of New Orleans. For Patton, to truly understand the African-American sector of self-taught visionary art, one must see that the apocalyptic is more an issue of race, gender and class in the minds of impoverished African-American Christians.
The overlying thesis among all of the articles is that self-taught visionary artists feel an urgency to proclaim that the end is near, and that the human race is running out of time to repent and accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Those who do not accept Christ will suffer in the lake of fire along with the beast of the sea, the beast of the earth, and—of course—Satan himself. Since a majority of these artists come from poverty and times of crisis, the theory also exists that the New Jerusalem depicted in much of the art is symbolic of the hope of redemption, that this life is not the end, and that they will live in a new Garden of Eden if they are faithful to God.
Crown, Carol. “More Than Meets the Eye: Visions of the Sacred in Southern Self-Taught Art.” In Sacred and Profane, edited by Carol Crown and Charles Russell, 40-65. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Jones, Michael Owen. “The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.” In Self-Taught Art, edited by Charles Russell, 47-60. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Kirwin, Liza. “The Reverend Howard Finster: The Last Red Light before the Apocalypse.” American Art, Summer 2002: 90-93.
Patton, Sharon. “Spiritual Visions and Allegory in Contempory African-American Folk Painting.” In Self-Taught Art, edited by Charles Russell, 129-145. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. “Southern Religion and Visionary Art.” In Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis, 73-83. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
_____. “Self-Taught Art, the Bible, and Southern Creativity.” In Sacred and Profane, edited by Carol Crown and Charles Russell, 3-20. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Wojcik, Daniel. “Approching Doomsday: The Contours of American Apocalyptic Belief.” In The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America, by Daniel Wojcik, 1-20. New York and London: New York University Press, 1997.
_____. “Outsider Art, Vernacular Traditions, Trauma, and Creativity.” Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society) 67, no. 2/3 (2008): 179-198.
Young, Ginger, and David Vintinner. “That Ol’ Time Religion.” Bible Review, 1997: 36-44.
 Michael Owen Jones, “The Aesthetics of Everyday Life,” in Self-Taught Art, ed. Charles Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 49.
 Daniel Wojcik, “Outsider Art, Vernacular Traditions, Trauma, and Creativity,” Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society) 67, no. 2/3 (2008): 179.
 Ibid., 183.
 Daniel Wojcik, “Approching Doomsday: The Contours of American Apocalyptic Belief,” in The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (New York and London: New York University Press, 1997), 11.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 13.
 Charles Reagan Wison, “Self-Taught Art, the Bible, and Southern Creativity,” in Sacred and Profane, ed. Carol Crown and Charles Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 14.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 19.
 Charles Reagan Wilson, “Southern Religion and Visionary Art,” in Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 83.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 80-81.
 Carol Crown, “More Than Meets the Eye: Visions of the Sacred in Southern Self-Taught Art” in Sacred and Profane, ed. Carol Crown and Charles Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 48.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 58.
 Liza Kirwin, “The Reverend Howard Finster: The Last Red Light before the Apocalypse,” American Art, Summer 2002: 92.
 Ibid., 93.
 Ginger Young and David Vintinner, “That Ol’ Time Religion,” Bible Review, 1997: 39.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 44.
 Daniel Wojcik, “Outsider Art, Vernacular Traditions, Trauma, and Creativity,” Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society) 67, no. 2/3 (2008): 187.
 Ginger Young and David Vintinner, “That Ol’ Time Religion,” Bible Review, 1997: 41.
 Sharon Patton, “Spiritual Visions and Allegory in Contempory African-American Folk Painting,” in Self-Taught Art, ed. Charles Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 136.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 138
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 145.