Mary Frances Whitfield Bears Witness

Mary Frances Whitfield Bears Witness

A graceful collection of the painter’s works about racial violence goes on exhibit in Birmingham, Alabama, as residents confront a difficult history.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Images of Whitfield's lynching paintings appear throughout this article—their depictions of violence are blunt and graphic and may disturb some readers.

When Mary Frances Whitfield began showing her lynching paintings on Long Island in the early 1990s, they were met with a mixed reception and some amount of discomfort. Likewise, for years, collectors of this Alabama-born, New York–based painter have been more interested in her warm portrayals of black Southern home life. To date, the canvases that channel her ancestors’ memories of racial violence have been rarely exhibited and long overlooked.

Now, in the wake of the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (colloquially known as the Lynching Memorial) in Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, some American institutions are leading a more open and active reckoning with this centuries-long legacy of violence and murder. Perhaps not coincidentally, Whitfield’s lynching paintings are finding a broader audience in the South. The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute have assembled the six-month exhibition “Mary Frances Whitfield: Why?” showcasing the lynching paintings in Alabama for the first time.

Mary Whitfield was born in the basement of a whites-only hospital in Birmingham in 1947. At age 7, she moved to Long Island, where she attended desegregated schools and had white friends. Still, she grew up with one foot in Jim Crow Alabama, returning every summer through her teenage years to stay with her grandmother.

Whitfield’s grandmother was a force—a civil rights activist who lost her job for demonstrating with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march with him from Selma to Montgomery in 1965—and she was protective. She sheltered the young Whitfield and her sister from the realities of Jim Crow, refusing to let them go into the city (ground zero of race relations in Jefferson County) from their secluded home on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Throughout Whitfield’s childhood, her grandmother told her stories of deprivation and struggle, and in the 1960s she started to invite her granddaughter to attend civil rights meetings at local churches. But, haunted by a 1955 issue of Jet magazine’s photos from Emmett Till’s funeral and just aware enough of the violence that accompanied the civil rights movement, Whitfield declined, keeping her distance from the midcentury tumult. She wouldn’t learn more about the history unfolding around her until decades later.

In the 1970s, now a stay-at-home mother married to a hardware salesman, Whitfield felt restless and took up painting on a whim. With a talent for sewing and needlework but no formal training in the arts, she first put house paint to plywood in her garage in Great Neck, New York, rendering pictures from everyday life that came to her in flashes of inspiration. Her first painting was of a woman holding a little girl with a tear in her eye: stark colors, flat, clean shapes, scant detail, poignant intimacy. 

Whitfield put her hobby aside to raise a family and, eventually, to take a one-year secretarial course, which led to a job in library services. But in the late 1980s, when her three sons were grown, she returned to painting, moving on to more technical media—watercolor and gouache, canvas board and Arches paper—and more complex themes. She joined the Long Island Black Artist Association and showed at the African American Museum of Nassau County, where she met Brooklyn curator Phyllis Stigliano, Whitfield’s friend and gallerist ever since.

In the early 1990s, Whitfield and Stigliano traveled together to Birmingham by Greyhound, where they visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It was an influential trip for Whitfield, who had begun to take up more nuanced subjects in her painting: scenes of life in the Jim Crow South, some halcyon (a woman and her daughters embracing in a sunlit sharecropper’s cabin), some severe (a black man hanged from a tree limb, a grief-stricken woman clinging to his body).

In the painting Mary, trees with crimson foliage grow from a dark forest floor riddled with tombstones and small crosses. The painting’s focal point is a tree from which a woman in a white dress hangs limply by a rope around her neck, her wrists and ankles bound. At her feet, another figure is crumpled in despair, weeping into their hands.

“It’s not a self-portrait,” Whitfield said. “It’s just how I felt about the job.”

At CMP Publishing, where she worked with her sister as a receptionist and then a librarian, Whitfield watched as the white women around her were unconditionally paid more and promoted more. ”So,” she said with a laugh, “I think it was just a thing of sorrow—of feeling sorry for myself. I don’t do that anymore. But I just put it there and called it Mary.”

Over the past three decades, Whitfield’s work has been shown at the Birmingham Museum of Art, the American Visionary Art Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and others and has been acquired for numerous private collections, including Oprah Winfrey’s. Many of the group shows on her CV center on “outsider” artists (a retrograde art-market term used to categorize work by people who were economically, racially, or otherwise marginalized); one show was titled “Difficult Women.”

In the current market, “outsider” artists and “difficult” women continue to receive scant—but growing—attention. It is a market now seemingly transfixed by marginalized artists from the Alabama Black Belt: Bill Traylor, a freed slave whose drawings were the focus of a recent solo show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Thornton Dial, whose sculpture was featured prominently at the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s new contemporary and modern wing; Lonnie Holley, Mose Tolliver, and the Gee’s Bend Quilters, all gradually becoming household names.

Accordingly, curator and the director of UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute John Fields said he’s surprised that Whitfield’s work—despite being featured alongside Traylor, Holley, Howard Finster, and others as early as 1994 in the pioneering book Revelations: Alabama’s Visionary Folk Artists—is not more widely known. “Birmingham has produced a remarkably high number of significant artists,” Fields said. “I think because Mary left Alabama when she was a teenager, she’s just been overshadowed. People here just need to see her work and hear her story.” For the Birmingham exhibition, he has assembled a number of works on loan from Southern collectors and from Stigliano.

The art world embraces and discusses art by way of comparison and classification, and Whitfield’s works are hard to pigeonhole. A New York gallerist once insisted that Whitfield was influenced by an African-American painter from the turn of the 20th century, Horace Pippin, with his stylistically comparable snapshots of daily life. (Stigliano is certain that Whitfield hadn’t come across Pippin at that point.) What the gallerist may have seen in both bodies of work was a reaction to the injustice of segregation and slavery. Whitfield has never needed to turn to other painters for that.

Weaving her family history into visionary works of historical fiction, Whitfield’s depictions of lynchings are like movie stills. The figures lack facial features but are exceptionally expressive, letting the viewer perceive and even feel their despair or anguish from gesture alone. The palettes are striking and rich with symbolism. The moments are soulful, narrative, and intimate, so much so that it feels possible to disrupt them just by breathing too loudly while viewing the canvas.

It is not happenstance that a show of Whitfield’s lynching paintings should arrive this year in Jefferson County, one of the most racially divided counties in America and a center of conflict during the civil rights era.

Last summer, a group of Birmingham residents formed the grassroots Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP) with the goal of erecting a monument to honor the victims of racial violence and, on the other side of that coin, empowering the community with the memory of civil rights activists who fought inequality. That monument already exists, awaiting the county at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—a project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a civil rights advocacy nonprofit—in Montgomery. But there are steps the JCMP must take before it can bring the monument home.

Visitors to the memorial walk through an open-air structure on a descending walkway beneath 800 hanging columns made of corten steel. There is one for each county where racial terror killings were documented. Each column is engraved with the name of the county and the names of the people who were murdered there. Duplicates of these columns line the memorial’s exit.

As part of the EJI’s Monument Placement Initiative, each of those counties is meant to retrieve its duplicate column and install it locally, but only after checking off a series of commitments to the EJI that are meant to ensure that the monument has the support of as many political stakeholders, community partners, and citizens as possible and that it will be placed at an appropriate public site. These commitments include public education and engagement, so to meet them, in 2018 the JCMP launched a program of educational and advocacy events, including research and lectures, citywide book clubs, film screenings, and the dedication of various historical markers at civil rights landmarks.

JCMP organizers have found that one of the issues on the EJI’s curriculum is harder than the others to address: the history of lynchings.

“The reality of racial terror killings is one of those topics we have to be honest about,” said T. Marie King, an activist and a member of the JCMP’s core coalition. “These events happened, and they happened here, in our city center. This is not black history, this is not Southern history. This history belongs to all of us.”

King and her fellow JCMP members see “Mary Frances Whitfield: Why?” not only as an opportunity to showcase a Birmingham artist’s work in her home community but also as the entry point to a conversation about lynchings in America. Over 300 known lynchings were committed across Alabama’s 67 counties before the 1950s—nearly one in 10 took place in Jefferson County.

While the JCMP believes this is an issue that needs to be confronted and that Whitfield’s paintings—which are both direct and graceful—represent the best way to prompt that conversation, King calls them “sensitive material.” She said the JCMP, the exhibition venues, and other community partners are making every effort to inform the audience in advance about what to expect from the work, to provide trauma education to the hosts, and to make trauma counselors available to attendees.

Of the nine core JCMP organizers, three have family members who were murdered in lynchings. King is one, as is Joi Brown, the marketing manager of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Brown was in disbelief when she saw the name of her father’s grandfather Mack Brown on the Blount County marker at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. She learned through further research that he was captured, set loose in the woods, and shot to death as he fled a mob of white vigilantes in 1891.

“It was very sobering,” Joi Brown said. “There’s this history, and you know you’re linked to it, but you don’t have a personal connection. When I found out I did, that made it all very real for me.”

In bringing Whitfield’s work to Birmingham and organizing community education and engagement events around it, Brown said, she hopes to air and honor the history of local families. While the majority of the exhibition is showing at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, one work is installed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: Whitfield’s KKK, which she painted after her initial visit to the institute, where she first saw images of Klansmen in a video.

In KKK, a hanged man in white garb with thin streaks of red trickling from his side and face who is flanked by Klansmen in white and green robes and looked over by mourners is set against the orange glow of a tree and a cross engulfed in flames—perhaps Whitfield’s take on the Crucifixion.

“Mary’s paintings about lynchings seem very peaceful,” Brown said. “There’s this very quiet tone to them, easy to digest at first. And then when you really start looking, you see this heavy, difficult history. It may not be the status quo [notion] of beautiful, but somehow—the pops of vivid color and the style of the brushstrokes, soothing tones, harmonious color schemes—it reminds me of Monet’s style of painting.”

After suffering a severe stroke in 2015, Whitfield moved in with her son and grandson in an apartment in Great Neck. During a visit from Phyllis Stigliano, Whitfield sits propped up against the pillows drinking a Diet Coke. Beside the bed is a calendar of Van Gogh paintings.

“Van Gogh is her favorite painter,” said Stigliano.

She used to paint on her lap in bed every night, but the stroke affected her health and memory. She hasn’t painted since.

When asked if she is proud of the upcoming show or if it moves her to have her works shown in the city where she was born, she shrugged off the question. “That’s God making it that way,” she said. “I don’t have much to do with it.”

She and Stigliano recalled events and images that have inspired Whitfield: their stop at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 1994, a news article about the brutal 1998 murder by dragging of James Byrd Jr., a Spike Lee documentary about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham—the type of event that made a 16-year-old Whitfield terrified and stubbornly reluctant to attend rallies, marches, and meetings with her grandmother.

But there are some paintings by Whitfield for which her inspiration cannot so easily be traced: pastoral plantation scenes of women in orange dresses picking cotton in the sun, children weeping at the feet of their parents’ bodies after the lynch mob has dispersed—a moment that has perhaps never been photographed, that can only have been imagined.

“I’ll tell the truth about things that I’ve seen,” Whitfield said. “But I never seen a lynching in my life. I never seen cotton growing so thick. I saw sprigs of cotton when we were on the road to New York or something like that, but I’ve never seen nothing like what I painted.”

John Fields said the spiritual element that Whitfield conjures with her images is part of what he finds so intriguing about her work.

“There is this romantic notion of the artist who is driven to paint from within, but for most artists, it’s like any other career—calculated and intentional, and a lot of thought goes into the creation of these types of works,” he said. “Then here is this woman who talks about how she’s been here, how she sees these scenes in her mind and is compelled to paint them.”

Whether Whitfield’s lynching paintings were fueled by her experience of inequality layered into what she was learning or whether they are manifestations of her ancestral past, they have found an audience in her hometown for the first time.

“This work is an amazing example of how art can tackle topics that feel impossible to talk about,” Brown said. “Some things can’t be put into words. Some things can only be put into art.”

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