Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The True Gospel Preached Here -- Bruce West Documents Outsider Art in Mississippi

Springfield, Missouri-based photographer Bruce West has just published, with the University Press of Mississippi, a volume of photographs called The True Gospel Preached Here.

The subject of this body of work is the lifetime work of the Reverend H. D. Dennis, a self-proclaimed preacher, artist, and architect, and his wife, Margaret, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Over the past twenty years, this couple has transformed a place called Margaret's Grocery into a fantastic world of Outsider Religious Art that includes several towers, a "replica" of the Ark of the Covenant containing tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as well as religious iconography entirely of the Dennis's invention.

Visitors to the site are greeted by signs that read "Welcome Jews and Gentile This Church Open 24 Hours a Day" and "The True Gospel Preached Here."

The University Press of Mississippi gives us this further description:

"Bands of high-gloss red, white, blue, green, yellow, and pink paint covered the towers and exterior. Religious artifacts, Mardi Gras beads, plastic flowers, hubcaps, and flashing Christmas lights encrusted the interior walls and ceilings and an old school bus.

"The Reverend used his church as a roadside attraction to lure seekers so that he could deliver fiery sermons and orations about the need to "practice living perfectly" and the ceaseless pursuit of spiritual wisdom.

"West's images offer unique insights into the role of spirituality in southern folk art and creativity and the joys and demands of an ascetic and inspired life."

The Press reports that the architect and MacArthur Fellow Samuel Mockbee lists the Dennis's transformation of Margaret's Grocery as among the ten most significant examples of Southern architecture, and comments that "its crude materials and methods of construction place it in an ethereal state of being and perpetual sense of beauty.”

What West has found -- and documented for us in these splendid photographs -- is a classic example of religious visionary art,  of the capacity of biblical imagery to capture the imagination and compel the creative spirit.

West's images of Margaret's Grocery were also featured recently on Jeff Rich's Eyes on the South blog for the Oxford American.

This work grows out of the central role of religion, especially Christianity, in the American South, which inspires some folks, including those with great vision but limited means, to significant artistic achievement.

One imagines that Margaret's Grocery not too long ago looked much more like the grocery and fish stand that Walker Evans found near Birmingham, Alabama in the 1930's (see image above) than it does today, like no other place on earth.


The power of the human imagination  to create meaning and beauty in the midst of poverty and oppression does not justify or excuse the actions of those who create or sustain the conditions of poverty and opression.

 But that power is worth recognizing and celebrating when it breaks out in places like Margaret's Grocery, transformed by the Dennis's vision.

Bruce West has brought that vision to our attention through his fine work, and through this fine book, for all of which we must be deeply grateful.

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