McWillie, Judith M. 1946–

views updated

McWillie, Judith M. 1946–


Born August 7, 1946, in Memphis, TN; daughter of James (a financial manager) and Elizabeth (a bank teller) McWillie. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: University of Memphis, B.F.A., 1969; Ohio State University, M.F.A., 1971. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Astronomy.


Home—Athens, GA. Office—Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602. E-mail—[email protected].


University of Georgia, Athens, professor of drawing and painting, 1974—. INTAR Latin American Gallery, New York, NY, curator of exhibitions, 1989-92; consultant to Exhibitions International.


James Mooney Award, Southern Anthropological Society, 2007, for No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work.


(With Grey Gundaker) No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 2005.

Work represented in anthologies, including Cultural Perspectives on the American South, edited by Charles Regan Wilson, Gordon & Breach (New York, NY), 1991; Dixie Debates, edited by Richard H. King and Helen Taylor, Pluto Press (London, England), 1996; Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Homeground, edited by Grey Gundaker, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 1998; The Art of William Edmondson, edited by R. Freeman, University of Mississippi Press (Jackson, MS), 2000; and Testimony: Vernacular Art from the African American South; The Ronald and June Shelp Collection, edited by Anne Hoy, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 2001. Contributor of articles and photographs to periodicals, including Clarion, Visions Art Quarterly, Atlanta Art Papers, Artforum, Public Art Review, and Metropolis. Georgia Review, member of board of directors, 1991-95.


Judith M. McWillie told CA: "I began writing as a result of my painting, which was rooted in abstract expressionism but specifically focused on religious themes in Roman Catholicism and African American ecstatic religion. In so doing I believed that I was proposing a new aesthetic for myself and challenging conventions in the region where I lived. I saw the South as linked, both demographically and aesthetically, to Africa, but this was not commonly acknowledged in the 1950s and early sixties. It seemed obvious at the time, however, that the musical traditions of blues and gospel, so globally successful, had visual counterparts. In the course of trying to establish this idea and explain the aesthetic origins of my paintings I began to photograph yards and sacred sites in the African American neighborhoods of Memphis.

"Later, when many of the people and sites I had photographed came to be described as ‘folk’ or ‘outsider,’ I believed that I had a responsibility to provide some context and empower the artists to speak for themselves, to describe their beliefs and motives.

"In 1984 I met Robert Farris Thompson after reading his profoundly important work, Flash of the Spirit: African and African American Art and Philosophy. Thompson discussed the Diaspora and its visual culture with a dignity lacking in the folk/outsider constituency. He encouraged me to publish my ideas and documentation. From that year until the publication of No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, in 2005, I have been doing that while continuing to paint and teach studio art.

"I have several, sometimes contradictory, motives for writing. There is, of course, the documentary aspect, which focuses on the content of images and the words and ideas of practitioners, something that the art world is less concerned with today than in the past. At the same time, I want to make an aesthetic compendium of cultural forms that I consider to be beautiful in themselves. I am deeply moved by the aesthetics of African American vernacular art and yard displays, especially at their most raw and seemingly chaotic. This beauty is seeded with religious faith, but completely devoid of the sentimentality often associated with ‘religious art.’ So I want to share my gradual sensitization to this beauty and find it anew in locations beyond the American South. Recent travels in Cuba have proven to be especially generative in this regard.

"From a technical standpoint, the availability of computers made writing possible for me. Before word processors, I would not have been able to do it, because I think in nonlinear terms and must then rely heavily on cutting and pasting for coherence. I do an average of two writing projects a year, a schedule that is sometimes mitigated by my teaching duties. During projects I work late at night or in marathon weekend sessions—twelve hours a day or more.

"No Space Hidden is the culmination of thirty years of experience. Coauthor Grey Gundaker's scholarly methodology and integrity give it a special dimension that I, as a painter, could not have accomplished alone. However, I am especially fond of "Art, Healing, and Power in the Afro Atlantic South," a chapter in Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Homeground, in which I introduce tools for discussing vernacular art (practitioners' narratives, Robert Plant Armstrong's theories of ‘the powers of presence,’ Marcel Duchamp's fetishization of readymades) and suggest that studying vernacular art can generate theory that might also be applied to analyses and evaluations of contemporary art.

"First, I hope that [my books] honor the people in them and then I hope that they demonstrate a new way of discussing the effects of religion on both vernacular and contemporary art."