An art environment can be described as an evolving display of architectural components and sculptures by an artist on his or her private land, which interferes publicly. Among these are the “yard shows” created by black artists in the American South. This cultural phenomenon, which illustrates the persistence of African visual traditions in the United States, was expressed primarily in secret behind and inside residences for a century until they began to be noticed by the outside world during the late 1960s. Mary T. Smith started to decorate her yard, located on the main street leading into Hazlehurst, Mississippi, after her retirement in 1975. She delineated her acre property with strips cut from corrugated metal and punctuated the fence with painted plaques depicting African-derived protective figures and watchful faces (often self-portraits) with piercing eyes, challenging gestures, enigmatic words, and thought-provoking messages such as “I Know You. Hear I Am” or “I Was in a Rake. The Lord Was For Me.” These expressionistic paintings, with their advertising style, bold lines, and contrasting colors, were clearly seen by passersby. In this place of her own, Smith could circumvent the stigma of a hearing impairment that often left her feeling socially misunderstood. “I don’t go nowhere no more. I can’t hear nothing. I don’t need nothing. I got it all here. My church. The Lord. Jesus.” As collector William S. Arnett recounted, “She also could dress her message. An interesting relationship existed between Smith’s wardrobe and her art. In her closet, Smith kept an extensive dress collection defined, as was her yard, by juxtapositions of the spiritual and the mundane.”
Valérie Rousseau, “Untitled,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.