Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art Receives Donation of the Archive of James R. “Jimmy” Hedges III and his Rising Fawn Folk Art Gallery

By Annette Leddy

May 24, 2016

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (the Archives) has acquired the extraordinary archive of the late philanthropist, artist, collector, and art dealer James R. “Jimmy” Hedges III (1942–2014) and the records from his Rising Fawn Folk Art Gallery.  Donated by Hedges’ son James R. Hedges IV on behalf of the Hedges Descendants Trust, the collection documents more than 400 “outsider”—or self-taught—artists he championed, including numerous photographs of the artists, their work, and their homes and studios.  The materials join more than a dozen other Archives collections about outsider or self-taught artists. This one reveals the unique vision of one artist-dealer and provides a detailed history of thirty years of this particular kind of art produced in the American South.

Kate Haw, Director of the Archives, remarked, “It is extremely rare to find such a wealth of material on a field whose artists traditionally have not kept extensive documentation of their own work and lives and were far removed from the mainstream art market. Indeed, this collection represents the largest collection on outsider art in the Archives’ holdings, and the visual record that Hedges created of artists, their homes and work spaces, and their artwork is especially valuable. The Jimmy Hedges Papers and Rising Fawn Folk Art Gallery Records will serve as a tremendous resource for investigating the marketing and collecting of these extraordinary and quintessentially American artists.”

 “My Father Jimmy Hedges was foremost an artist, a creative soul who had a curiosity about other artists’ paths and creative struggles. Throughout his life, he generously supported artists in building their careers and caring for themselves. Indeed, Jimmy Hedges knew his archive may well be his greatest legacy, building awareness and giving a voice to artists whose work he felt was on par with any creative people or expression in the world.” 

Born into a prominent family from Chattanooga, Jimmy Hedges was a lifelong philanthropist as a trustee of his family’s Tonya Memorial Foundation.  His true vocation, however, was as an artist, collector, and dealer of outsider art and as an advocate for self-taught artists.  Hedges discovered his love of wood carving as a teenager, when he created song birds, and returned to making art at age forty. Using a chain saw, he carved sculptures of Southerners he had encountered in his travels, including artists. His colleagues in this sector of the fine art craft world were predominantly southern African American self-taught painters, sculptors, potters, and carvers. Befriending them and collecting their work led Hedges to establish Rising Fawn Folk Art Gallery in 1993, building a gallery space in the early 2000s on his 500-acre farm in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

An unconventional art dealer, Hedges would hand-deliver work to collectors’ homes, driving his truck through backroads and stopping along the way to visit with artists and purchase more works to sell. He was an active presence at the Outsider Art Fair and self-taught artist exhibitions throughout the U.S., as well as at Slotin Folk Art auctions and prison auctions. His aim was to improve the economic condition of fellow artists and raise their profiles among curators and critics. Hedges’ development of an archive was essential to this goal.

To open his files at the Archives is to enter a world where art functioned as a survival strategy in the face of poverty, physical injury, imprisonment, and precarious mental health. Among the papers is Hedges’ biography of the artist Mose Tolliver (1915-2006), for example, noting that Tolliver “worked a variety of jobs throughout his life, as a gardener and general handyman. While sweeping up for a furniture company in the early 1970s, a load of marble fell on Mose’s legs, crushing them. While recovering from this injury… Mose began to paint. He’d sit in his front yard, painting the neighborhood children, and hanging his paintings in his front yard, hoping to sell them for a dollar or two.”

When Hedges began representing him, Tolliver had already appeared in the landmark 1982 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980. Later, his work entered the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum. Hedges’ files contain numerous photographs of Tolliver’s paintings, including charming yet disturbing serial portraits that portray the subjects’ mouths filled with rapacious, thorn-like teeth, decentered and dissociated from the eyes.

A full linear foot of the archive is devoted to another widely recognized outsider artist, Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910-2007), whose tools were his fingers and whose medium was mud mixed with household substances, including coffee grounds, honey, berries, and egg yolk to add color and texture. The papers comprehensively document Sudduth’s process, offering views of Sudduth at home finger-painting portraits of his animals or family members on plywood. 

Hedges avidly promoted the work of lesser-known artists such as Purvis Young, Georgia Blizzard, Marie Rogers, Charles Simmons, Hubert Walters, James “Son Ford” Thomas, and Lonnie Holley. He made fact sheets, postcards, and pamphlets to promote them and their work, all of which are in his papers, along with sales records and collectors’ files. Also included in the gift is Hedges’ camera, with which he documented the lives of the many artists he supported, capturing them at ease in familiar surroundings. He always had at least one photo taken of himself with an artist, and these illustrate his full enjoyment of the scene around him.

In compiling this documentation, Hedges anticipated the increasing incorporation of the genre into the mainstream American art world in our time. Indeed, the arrival of Hedges’ papers coincides with the planning of a major exhibition about the relationship between mainstream and self-taught artists in 20th- and 21st-century America at the National Gallery of Art to be curated by Lynne Cooke, the date of which has not yet been announced.