Josephus Farmer


was born the son of a former slave near Trenton, Tennessee, in the rural community of Gibson Courts, where he lived until his family moved to Humboldt, Tennessee.At the age of twenty he left his agrarian, small-town milieu and moved to St. Louis, where he found work in a meat-packing plant.According to his own account, Farmer had a series of intensely spiritual experiences when he was in his late twenties, commencing with his sensation that God wascalling him to join the church. When he was baptized shortly thereafter, he manifested the phenomenon of “glossolalia,” or the making of indecipherable vocal sounds,more commonly known as speaking in tongues. Ordained in the Pentecostal Church, he soon began preaching the Gospel on the streets of St. Louis. All of theseepisodes in his dramatic religious conversion took place in 1922, the same year that he met and married Evelyn Griffin, with whom he had a son.In the mid-1920s, Farmer became a roving evangelist and brought his family along as he moved from place to place, living for brief periods of time in six differentstates in the Midwest and on the West Coast. On weekends he preached outdoors in a tent or in storefront churches, and on weekdays he performed various manuallabor jobs, including construction work that he did for the federal government during the 1930s and 1940s. For a while he served as the regular pastor at churches inMurphysboro and Harrisburg, Illinois, and in 1931 he founded El Bethel Apostolic Church in South Kinloch, Missouri. In 1947 he moved his family to Milwaukee,where he found work as a hotel porter, opened a storefront church, and settled in for the next forty years.Like most woodcarvers, Farmer learned his craft as a child, and early on he practiced the African American tradition of carving monkeys and other animal figuresfrom the hard, red pits of peaches. After he retired, in 1960, he reclaimed his childhood pastime and began carving bas-reliefs with religious and patriotic themes,inspired by imagery he found in popular publications. Among his favorite subjects in his early work were President John F.Kennedy and First Lady JacquelineKennedy, who then occupied the White House. Although he occasionally made sculpture in-the-round and later built sculptural tableaux or dioramas, Farmer initiallyand through the 1970s worked most often in low wood relief, painting his works when he finished carving them, and sometimes including passages of painted text aswell.Farmer eventually made a number of works, often based on images in the
American Heritage Illustrated History of the United States,
one of his favorite source books. Recurring themes in these historical pieces are the enslavement and subsequent emancipation of blacks in the United States. To some extent, his works dealingwith those subjects were probably informed by family stories about his father’s experiences as a slave. When treating historical themes, he retained the religious focus of a preacher, often including in these works numerical references to passages from the Bible that he saw as prophecies of the historical events he depicted.To create his early reliefs, Farmer employed only a utility knife, even when working with a hard wood such as mahogany. He later switched to pine and other softer woods and began to use more sophisticated tools, some of them electrically powered. His tableaux, most of which date from his last ten years, are made in part of carved and painted wood, but unlike the relief pieces, they were assembled from wood components, as well as cloth, plastic, wire, wood putty, and other materials,affixed to each other with glue and nails, and are typically mounted on plywood bases. The only other artworks he is known to have produced are a number of representational, text-augmented banners that he painted on window shades and used to illustrate his sermons. He also produced several sculptures, carved in-the-round, and including variations on the Crucifixion of Christ and the Statue of Liberty. In 1987, shortly after the death of his wife, Farmer left Milwaukee for Joliet, Illinois, to live near his son. There he moved into an apartment building for senior citizens, where he continued to carve and create his tableaux until the last few months of his life. He spent those final months in a nursing home, where he died after suffering a heart attack.
See also
Affrican American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Religious Folk Art; Sculpture, Folk; Visionary Art
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Flying Free:
Twentieth-Century Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Ellin and Baron Gordon
. Williamsburg, Va., 1997.Columbus Museum of Art.
Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver.
Columbus, Ohio, 1992.Yelen, Alice Rae.
Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present.
New Orleans, La., 1993.