Sybil Gibson


is known for her tempera paintings on grocery bags and newspaper, which she produced by the thousands. Her depictions of flowers and children were colorful in asoft and sentimental way, but when she painted a woman’s face looking directly at the viewer, she created an ominous and mysterious effect. Gibson’s appealing yethaunting subjects make her an individualistic and compelling artist.Born to affluent parents on February 18, 1908 in Dora, Alabama, Gibson led a chaotic life. When she was twenty-one, she married Hugh Gibson, and in 1932 theyhad a daughter, Theresa. When they divorced in 1935, she left her daughter in the care of her own parents, and attended a number of Alabama colleges. She receiveda degree from Jacksonville State Teachers College in Alabama and eventually taught grade school, first in Alabama and then in Florida, where she moved in 1945 or 1946. She remarried in 1950 or 1951, but her second husband, David De Yarmon, moved to Ohio without her.Gibson’s life as an artist began spontaneously in 1963, when she saw some striking gift-wrapping paper that inspired her to paint feverishly with tempera poster painton damp grocery bags. This wet-on-wet technique produced a soft, delicate quality that is characteristic of her work and contributed to a fluid, painterly style, which isunusual for a Southern folk artist. She also painted with oils, house paint, and watercolors on anything she could find in the trash. Her poverty and the volume of her output dictated the use of grocery bags, in particular, as a surface. Gibson said that good art paper turned her off, while something out of the trash pile inspired her.Still-lifes, landscapes, flowers, birds, cats, children, and groups of figures as well as haunted, female faces were all subjects of her paintings. She said she did not planor sketch her work first, but let the paint tell her what to do. Gibson said she was painting her childhood memories; she did not believe that art could be taught, but thatit must come from within.In 1971 the Miami Museum of Modern Art organized a one-woman show of Gibson’s work, but the artist never saw the exhibition because she had disappearedtwo years earlier. She was found living in Birmingham, Alabama, in a seedy hotel. Over the next twenty years, she lived with her cousin in Florida and then at a facilityfor the elderly in Jasper, Alabama, which she was forced to leave because of her disruptive behavior. Gibson stopped painting because of her deteriorating eyesight.In 1991 Gibson’s daughter took charge of her mother’s life, moving her to the Dunedin Care Center in Florida, and arranging for a cataract operation. The artist wassoon back at work, covering her bed and floor with stacks of new paintings. Gibson died there. While thousands of her paintings were discarded, many survived, andthey are now collected and exhibited extensively.
See also
Painting, American Folk; Painting, Landscape; Painting, Still-life
John Hood. “More Than a Pretty Face: The Art of Sybil Gibson.”
Folk Art,
vol. 23, no. 4 (winter 1998–1999): 47–51.Kemp, Kathy, and Keith Boyer.
Revelations: Alabama’s Visionary Folk Artists.
Birmingham, Ala., 1994.Yelen, Alice Rae.
Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present.
New Orleans, La., 1993