"My Ol' Kentucky Home" 1982, acrylic and oil pastel on panel by Minnie Ma Scyphers.
Folk artists Nancy Johnson and the late Minnie Ma Scyphers never met, but it’s appropriate their work is on display in a joint exhibit at East Tennessee State University’s Reece Museum.
“Shining Light,” curated by William King Museum, tells the story of these two Virginia women who were called to paint though they had no formal training.
“This is truly, truly folk art,” said Theresa Hammons, Reece museum director.
The two artists painted on what was at hand. In Minnie Ma’s case that meant pieces of cardboard, wood paneling, the backs of puzzle boxes. Some of Nancy Johnson’s work is held together with duct tape.
Minnie Ma, who died in 1990 at the age of 92, began painting late in life. She was in her 70s before she devoted herself to visual art and poetry. Before that, her life was one of hardship.
Born in a log cabin on Clinch Mountain in Virginia, Minnie Ma was 6 years old when her mother died.
“Her father remarried and left the kids in the old cabin to start another family,” Hammons said.
The children, understandably, struggled to survive, and Minnie Ma’s formal education ended with the sixth grade.
Hammons said despite her difficult childhood, Minnie Ma was known for her “always bubbly, happy personality.”
Perhaps creativity kept her spirit alive. Music was Minnie Ma’s first art form. In her 20s, she began playing the organ, then guitar, mandolin, autoharp and accordion. She met her third husband while playing the accordion at church.
After their marriage, the couple moved to Brumley Gap, Va., where Minnie Ma began painting so she could decorate her walls. She called her house, a former school, “Minnie Ma’s Art House,” and put a sign to that effect above her front gate.
Her paintings are primarily landscapes or of houses and other buildings in the Appalachian Mountains.
“Some were from memory. She also took postcards and Christmas cards and copied them,” Hammons said.
Nancy Johnson, who has a studio at Abingdon’s Arts Depot, grew up near Emory, Va., in what is known as the Blacksburg Community. She was the eighth of 11 children and a twin.
“Nancy Johnson was a child in the 1960s,” Hammons said. “She refers to her family as a rainbow, all different shades and colors.”
One of Johnson’s favorite paintings, titled “Mama Carrie and the Twins,” shows her mother with fair skin and reddish hair holding two babies, one dark skinned and the other light skinned.
A majority of her paintings tell stories from her childhood. Some contain images of her mother, who lost a leg to infection as a child. Carrie Lena Hoard Hill, Johnson’s mother, had a wooden leg. A painting titled “Kids Using Mama’s Peg Leg as a Sliding Board,” chronicles one of the children’s favorite activities.
“Mama didn’t mind. She did anything to keep us kids happy. When she got tired of us she stood up. No more slide,” Johnson relates in the exhibit catalog.
Johnson began painting in 1989 after working 17 years as a nurse. “She just started playing around with art,” Hammons said. “A lot of her paintings deal with agriculture and farm life. She and her sister didn’t like farm work. From her paintings it seems there were a lot of people in her life.”
Those people include family, extended family and members of the community. Johnson also deals with family and African American history.
“She’s getting into more abstract paintings,” Hammons said. “She is doing depictions of slave ships using rust from railroad ties to depict the ships and googly eyes to depict slaves. She’s becoming a multimedia artist.”
The exhibit will be on display until Nov. 11. There are parking spaces in front of the museum reserved for museum patrons, which do not require a parking pass.
Museum hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on Thursday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday; and closed Sunday.
For more information, call 439-4392, visit www.etsu.edu/cass/reece or find the Reece Museum on Facebook.