was born into a large family and grew up on an eighty-acre farm in Shamrock, Missouri. Educated through the sixth grade, he left home at age fourteen to lead atransient life, hopping freight trains around the country and working odd jobs. In 1905 he moved back to Missouri, where he lived and worked on the family farm untilhe married, in 1916, fathering five children over the next several years. In the early 1940s he bought a house and twenty acres in Fulton, Missouri. He began decoratinghis property with model airplanes that he made from wood, along with mock tombstones and other constructions. He also began using the premises as a forum to air hisreligious, political, and philosophical convictions, in the form of prominently posted signs covered to the edges with neatly aligned, hand-lettered texts in black or fieryred letters. This uniquely personal manifestation of textual logorrhea predated conceptual art’s heavy reliance on the written word by twenty years.Some among this polemical yard show’s audience of neighbors and random passersby were evidently displeased with Howard’s viewpoints, as well as his audacityin placing them outside in full public view. From the late 1940s until the 1970s,
Hell’s 20 Acres,
(as he alternately called his place) was frequentlyvandalized, and he was harassed repeatedly for his unconventional means of exercising his freedoms of thought and speech. During a petition campaign in 1952, someof his neighbors attempted unsuccessfully to have the outspoken artist committed to a mental institution. Such attacks angered Howard and lowered his opinion of hisfellow human beings, but he was not intimidated, and continued to publicly express himself without regard to the social consequences.Eventually, by the 1970s, his handmade signs began to attract more favorable attention, and the inclusion of several of them in “Naives and Visionaries,” a 1974exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, stirred up considerable interest in Howard from art collectors, curators, and scholars. Most of his signs carryreligious messages and many of them rant against the federal government, as well as the vandals who repeatedly damaged and destroyed his work. A quintessentiallyAmerican figure, whose life was literally an open book, Howard aptly described himself in at least one of his works as
“The Man with Signs and Wonders”
Environments, Folk; Outsider Art; Religious Folk Art; Yard Show
Foster, John. “Jesse Howard: Missouri’s Man of Signs and Wonders.”
Envision: The St. Louis Newsletter for Folk, Visionary, and Outsider Art,
vol. 3, no. 2 (July1998): 1–5.Marshall, Howard, ed.
Missouri Artist Jesse Howard with a Contemplation on Idiosyncratic Art.
Columbia, Mo., 1983.
Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology.
[exhibit catalogue, published by Chronicle Books] New York, 1998