Refurnished Thoughts

Discover Vintage America - MAY 2018

Memories of a sign painter

Working on this month's feature about advertising signs reminded me that not all signs are meant to sell products or give directions. Sometimes they are a means of self-expression.

(photo courtesy The Intuitive Eye)

That is the case of an old man I became acquainted with in Fulton, MO while I was in college and in my first years of newspapering. Long deceased now, Jesse Howard was one of those iconoclastic figures who compromised with no man and let the world know how he felt about just about everything through thousands of hand-lettered signs, sometimes tirades, painted on
every scrap of lumber that came into his possession.

Howard lived on 20 acres of land on a scrubby hillside on the outskirts of town toward Jefferson City. He named it "Sorehead Hill." Fultonites agreed. Every fencepost and the side of every outbuilding were plastered with his signs, each carefully lettered from top to bottom in block capital letters.

He seemed to find fault everywhere and his signs were expressions of religious exhortations, political denunciations, and autobiographical details. Some were warnings with biblical overtones. Many were long and rambling jeremiads.

Howard seemed to have no motive other than to exercise his First Amendment right to say what he pleased. He sought no other notoriety than what could be viewed on Sorehead Hill. His outspokenness and cantankerousness eventually alienated him from his fellow townspeople who would often roll their eyes when his name came up in conversation.

But if a polite visitor expressed interest in his work he would invite them in and spend the whole afternoon showing off his works. The sheds were filled with them. Signs on public display were often stolen ending up on the walls of fraternity houses. He had a register that he asked visitors to sign and comment on his efforts. My name is in there somewhere.

Eventually, Howard came to the attention of the art world and his signs were first featured in Art in America through Gregg Blasdel's essay "Grassroots Art in America" (1968). His work was later included in exhibitions at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN (1974) and at the Philadelphia College of Art (1981). Author Richard Rhodes devoted an essay to Howard in his book Inland Ground. His work has been widely discussed in magazines and newspapers across the country and is included in the collections of a number of museums, including the American Folk Art Museum, New York; the American Visionary Arts Museum, Baltimore; the Kansas City Art Institute; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. The St. Louis Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited a comprehensive survey of his work in 2015.

Jesse Howard will be remembered now as an authentic American folk artist, although it's hard to imagine that he would care. He just wanted people to act right.

And he let them know.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at
Leigh Elmore's Refurbished Thoughts Archive — past columns