was a self-taught artist who made mixed media root sculptures that synthesized Afro-Atlantic vernacular tradition with intense personal vision. A native of Dallas,Georgia, Harvey was the seventh of thirteen children. At the age of fourteen, she married Charles Harvey and settled in Buena Vista, Georgia. When she was in her early twenties, Harvey separated from her husband and relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee, and by age thirty-five she was raising eleven children as a single mother.Harvey cited her accidental discovery in 1972 of a small medallion while gardening as a portent of her subsequent creative activity, and she began making sculpture inresponse to her grief after the death of her mother in 1974. Her first works were “dolls” fashioned from roots that she culled from her local environs and in which shesaw faces and intuitively sensed the presence of spirits. Harvey understood her unique vision and her ability to “bring it out” in wood and mixed media to be divine gifts.Harvey’s early works are relatively simple and unadorned figural compositions in painted wood, typically titled with the name of the spirits the artist believed toreside in the roots. These names often referred to spirits of African kings and warriors or biblical subjects. In time her works grew more complex as she experimentedwith a variety of media. Her larger works from the mid-1980s and after—Baroque, mixed-media, multi-figural
built from gnarled, large-scale roots andtree stumps—represent the artist’s mature style. A corollary to the artist’s visionary output is her series, begun in the 1980s and titled
Africans in America,
of didacticdioramas created to teach African American children about their heritage. Harvey ultimately intended her artwork to be a tool for divine healing, a purpose consistentwith the centuries-old Afro-Atlantic vernacular tradition of root medicine within which it may be viewed: “Anybody that looks upon the work, I believe you are truly blessed, because it is an instrument of love.” Harvey’s root sculptures have been accepted within multiple contexts, including contemporary folk art, outsider art, andthe mainstream art world.
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Outsider Art; Sculpture, Folk
Borum, Jenifer P. “Spirit from Head.”
no. 37 (winter 2002): 42–49.Cavin Morris, Shari. “Bessie Harvey: The Spirit in the Wood.”
(spring/summer 1987): 44–49.Wicks, Stephen C.
Revelations in Wood: The Art of Bessie Harvey.
Knoxville, Tenn., 1997