Mary Tillman Smith (1904-1995) was the 3rd of 13 children born to a sharecropping family in Copiah County, Mississippi. She was born with a hearing impairment which made her speech difficult to understand, & she kept to herself much of the time, even when she was growing up surrounded by lots of brothers & sisters.
Her sister, Elizabeth remembered, “When the rest of us were doing hopscotch, Mary would get on the ground somewhere else and draw pictures in the dirt and write funny things by the pictures.” She was married briefly to a sharecropper named John Smith & had only one son, whom she brought up in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. She worked as a domestic & a gardener.
Around 1980, Mary Tillman Smith began cutting up and painting on sheets of roofing tin which her son had intended to use for a shed. Surrounding her home she built daunting whitewashed fences of corrugated tin that she split with an ax. To these fences she attached intensely bold expressionistic paintings made on tin and wood -- paintings of friends, neighbors, pets, trees, Jesus, & other biblical themes. She often included sometimes legible words in random sequences in her work, just as she had when she was a child. She usually used only 2-4 different colors per painting.
When Mary Tillman Smith began "making pictures," she was often motivated by her religious faith and the desire to "pretty her yard." She painted local figures on corrugated tin and mounted the portraits on her fence, her dog pen, or her son's garage. In the mid-1980s her vegetable garden included scarecrows made of tin, bicycle parts, paint can lids, and painted faces. She also fenced herself in with her art. The world was on the outside, passing by & taking notice. Smith transformed her approximately one acre home place into a fantastic art environment of painted tin, wood, and other found and recycled objects.
She painted to express her religious beliefs & to make herself "heard" outside her self-imposed boundries. Her art became her identity. She wrote on one of her paintings, "My name is someone The Lord for me He no.” Another of her messages on a painting reads, "Here I am don’t you see me."
She began using plywood panels for her art as demand for her work increased; at the same time, health issues made working with the tin more difficult. She suffered a stroke in 1985, but she continued to paint for the next few years. Her health started to deteriorate further; however, and she ceased painting in 1991, several years before her death in 1995. Even when she gained some fame as an artist, she remained honest & humble, as her fame grew. She wrote above her dog pen, "One face is all right, two face won't do." "I did it to pretty the place and to please the Lord."