Henry Speller, Untitled (Three Women), 18 x 24 inches, ca 1983-1988
Henry Speller: Mother Wit
September 12 – November 2, 2019
“I saw some pictures and I just took it in my head to see if I could do some. I could. It was my talent. I guess I had good mother wit. That’s anything that comes out of your head. You just sit down and think about it and plan it out and you know how to do it.”
– Henry Speller in The Commercial Appeal, 1979
Henry Speller was born in 1903 in the tiny Delta community of Panther Burn, Mississippi near Rolling Fork. He spent the first half of his life as a sharecropper and subsistence farmer in the region but moved to Memphis in 1939 where he worked odd jobs for many years—first as a junk man—and later as a landscaper, garbage collector, and janitor for a trucking company. His cultural roots, however, remain embedded in the pre-war Mississippi Delta environment. A traditional Delta blues musician, Speller claimed to be friendly with Charley Patton and played with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.
In the 1970s and 80s Speller lived on Butler Avenue a few blocks south of Beale Street. During those years, Speller made hundreds of pencil, crayon, and marker drawings which he initially displayed on his front porch. Through observation, memory and an intuitive formal virtuosity, Speller transcribed the past and present and the country and city through his expansive imagination.
Many of Speller’s drawings capture both the vibrance and chaos of life in and around Beale and although his world was narrowly defined, he seemingly employed all of his experience and attention in service to his art. In addition to people from the Beale street milieu, Speller also depicted houses, churches, and characters from television. Boats, trains, motorcycles, and automobiles populate many of his drawings, showing the artist’s longtime fascination with all forms of transportation, and perhaps an unrealized wish to simply “get out.” Speller’s most recognized subjects are the varied iterations of long-haired women he rendered with large breasts and colorful fetishized anatomy. It is not hard to imagine these figures giving visual form to his sexual fantasies. The women in his drawings appear to be performing, often in a sarcastic manner, and their lipless mouths bare aggressive teeth leaving the viewer to consider whether their smiles are friendly or menacing. In conversation with the collector and scholar Bill Arnett, Henry Speller explained his reason for drawing: “They just consolate me when I’m back here by myself.” No matter the subject, it is clear that Speller’s drawings provided him with a vital expressive outlet for both pleasure and frustration in a world plagued with monotony and struggle but also with joy.
Henry Speller: Mother Wit opens September 12, 2019 at Institute 193 (1B) in collaboration with Tops Gallery (Memphis, TN). This exhibition will be immediately followed by the release of an LP album with music and dialogue by Henry Speller, his wife and fellow artist Georgia Speller, and artist and musician Coy Love. The recordings were made by collector and archivist Jerry Pevahouse at the Speller home on Butler Avenue in June of 1978. The record titled “244 Butler Avenue” will be released in December 2019.