Howard praised in Kansas City

Jesse Howard, 1885 – 1983

These articles were published in Fulton newspapers between 1977 and 1989.
Howard Praised in Kansas City, April 6, 1977
Free thought, free speech and Jesse Howard, October 12, 1980
Sign-painter Howard dies at 98, November 22, 1983
Faded Workshops, June 6. 1989

Howard praised in Kansas City

By Donald Hoffman, Kansas City Star Art Critic
Reprinted in the Kingdom Daily News, April 6, 1977

If art has anything at all to do with honest expression—and of course it does—then Jesse Howard’s painted signs and lettered contraptions can lay claim to being art. And without apologies, or condescension or that fearful but prevalent attitude called “camp.”

Four years ago or so, at the urging of Dale Eldred, the Kansas City Art Institute bought a major selection of Howard’s work. Now the collection is being exhibited, for the first time in Kansas City, at the school’s Kemper Gallery.

Jesse Howard was born in June 1885, which makes him nearly 92 years old. He was married in 1916 and, as the years went on, became the father of five children. HE farmed, did odd jobs, and moved around a lot. Around 1953 he retired and took to reading the Bible and making his signs, down on his farm at Fulton, MO.

Howard’s story has been told in detail by Richard Rhodes, first in his book called “The Inland Ground” and again in an exhibition catalogue called “Naives and Visionaries.” In the latter, Howard is described as “the Grandma Moses of print culture”—which striked me a facile phrase quite beside the mark, because Howard’s authentic and almost truculent messages are far indeed from hokey nostalgia. Take this sign:

000,000. Nothing. No confidence. No nothing. NO: 000.

Call it depression mental or financial; whatever, there is a poignant cry deep within a painted “shield” that reads like that. Howard’s anger is rarely without humor. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Herbert W. Hemphill, JR., of New York:

“…All of my writing is truth…Two men were out here the other day reading my signs. One of the men said he lived in Fulton. I ask them what they thought of Fulton? Their answer was It stinks. Well it is too bad. I think the same thing. The town is alright. It is the people…”

Some of his signs are simply observations:

If we are not dodging bullets it is a cinch that we are dodging the horseless wagon. The automobile…

Sometimes he chooses to enter the political arena:

John F. Kennedy. If I would girk that big fat teat out of your mouth that you have been nurseing all of your life they cold HEAR you BELLER and BAWL like a year old WEANED BULL-CALF. You would not need a LOUD speaker for you could hear YOURSELF…It would be WORSER then the St. Louis National Slaughter Pen’s.

Or on a more local level:

Sheriff W. A. Bill Dawson. How did you get those holes wore in the knees of your pants? Bill. O, I did that praying. And those wore in the seat of your pants? Bill. I did that backsliding.

The cumulative effect of Jesse Howard’s signs has that strange sort of beauty that comes from naked force visually expressed. There is also a more quiet beauty to some of his signs, the ones that shift into gold or green or red lettering for special words. In a more purely aesthetic sense, the best sign is probably the one that begins, “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah…”

Howard’s several vehicle-like constructions—conveyances for more signs—include something like a plow, an airplane weathervane, a “windmill” affectionately named for the Kansas City Art Institute and, a real treasure, a little house on wheels. To those who see Howard’s work as merely the outpourings of a crank (to put it mildly), one must cite the comparison to the art of David Smith, particularly his series of welded metal sculptures, on wheels, made in Italy.

Howard has been widely unappreciated by his townsfolk and by those who even sought to have him committed, so his sense of being an outcast has a very real basis. One of his manuscript fragments is titled “I HAVE BEEN”:

I have been bawled out, bawled up, held up, held down, hung up, bulldozed, blackjacked, walked on, cheated, squeezed and mooched: Stuck for war tax, excess profit tax, state dog and syntax: Liberty bonds, baby bonds, and the bonds of matrimoney: Red cross, green cross and Double cross…

There is one of his signs that is hinged, to fold in on itself; the backside says simply:

“If you won’t throw me in JAIL I will unfold you the truth.”

The signs tell the story of a man who is old and often alone and willing again and again to confront the realities of his life and of life in general:

I was born near Shamrock, Mo.…I wasn’t like a kitty or pup. I have my eyes open..I was born nude. And the first thing I said, Wow-wow-wow. Two of them. A boy and a girl. So they put clothes on us and here we are today. Ettie and Jessie Earnest. I im what I im I have worked hard, I have made my living in the way that GOD intended me to do. That is by the sweat of the face…I do not fear what man shall do unto me…

A few of Howard’s signs are particularly plaintive. One is on a long boards and is roughly lettered:

What is a man to do? And what can a man do? When his family will not pull with him.

And finally:

75 years of hard labor is a might long time, and 50 years of disappointment is a long long time.

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