JOE MINTER Joe Minter Main < BACK

Joe Minter's "African Village in America" is located in southwest Birmingham, Alabama, next door to the house where he and his wife Hilda live. Painted a brilliant blue, the house abuts a quarter-acre parcel of land that - despite its chain-link fence enclosure and its pathways of wooden planks - conjures up a vision of an intimate, densely packed tropical garden, set with zinnias, marigolds, roses, purple spiderwort, and an array of lush, dark green leafy plants. Interspersed within the vibrant flora are brightly painted tin and wood constructions, mixed-media pieces made of found objects-dolls, old car parts, chains, and cast-off boots-and placards painted with statements from Scripture and the Civil Rights movement. All are dominated by huge silhouettes of abstract metal and wooden shapes, many recalling human forms that loom elegantly and evocatively against the sky. As if unable to constrain the burgeoning organic life that it contains, the garden spills out so that its haunting creatures - large and small - frame Minter's home. They occupy the carport on the house's other side, pack the garage behind it, and across the street, Minter's metallic morphs and his hand-painted signs fill the yard, porch, and the rooms of another house.

Once a mechanic in the US Army, Minter worked for eleven years for a company that manufactured metal furniture. He has held a long list of other jobs, including auto bodywork and painting, roadwork, and sign painting; now he is a self-employed construction worker. Completely self-taught in the aesthetics of making art, Minter has put a lifetime of experience in making school furniture, exercise equipment, truck beds, and cars to creative use in the ongoing construction of his garden, which he began in 1989. Like many vernacular artists, Minter uses discarded objects to fashion the objects that he creates-a tactic taken only in part because of the cost-effectiveness and availability of materials: The whole idea handed down to me by God is to use that which has been discarded, just as we as a people have been discarded, made invisible. That what is invisible, thrown away, could be made into something so it demonstrates that even what gets thrown away, with a spirit in it can survive and grow. A spirit of all the people that has touched and felt that materials has stayed in the material. God supplies me with what is needed, what other people throw away as junk, what I find on streets, and in flea markets, outlet stores, Goodwill, Salvation Army.1 Minter's use of found objects and his aim to make art out of trash and cast-offs call to mind the work of another famous self-taught artist and native Alabamian, Rev. Howard Finster (c.1915-2001). Rev. Finster's Paradise Garden with its World Folk Art Church, located in northwest Georgia, is thought by many to be folk art's visionary garden par excellence. Now in much disrepair, Paradise Garden still beckons many visitors, although many of its most famous objects are on view in Atlanta's High Museum.

Like Rev. Finster, Minter says the only blueprint he's used to make his garden is one handed down by God. The two men also agree that God is using their art to deliver a message, although Minter's intent is less bound up with preaching salvation, despite his roots in Evangelical Christianity. Minter's goal, he says, is to serve as an instrument of God's love and peace, teaching a lesson of hope in a forlorn and desperate time: I looked around me and saw so much trouble in the world, so much suffering among my people. I was living in a place that looks upon Africans as less than a human being.... I saw how the races was drifting further and further apart and how black people ourselves was drifting apart. And I asked God to help me find a way that I could help bring people together as one, for understanding, even for the littlest child.2]

Although Minter never went to college, his garden demonstrates a broad knowledge of the world and its history, a clear understanding of the human predicament, and resolute courage. The garden is composed of two sections. The first is located at the rear of Minter's property and overlooks two historically black cemeteries, Grace Hill and Shadow Lawn, places Minter describes as "ancestral burial ground[s]." This section, which honors the African history and values of Black Americans, features circular huts made of wood and cast-off metal sheeting, painted red, green, yellow, and black. It also includes tall mixed-media statues of African warriors and an African family, constructed of tin, metal rails, and machine parts. In her article "God Plants his Art," Birmingham Post Herald reporter Elaine Pitt points out that a replica slave ship serves as the bridge to the garden's second section. Minter built the ship out of burnt timbers with a chain running down the center, and imbedded the structure with hundreds of nails, each representing a human being. The latter part of the garden honors the achievements of African-Americans and contains tributes to black scientists, scholars, astronauts, military and civic leaders. Civil right heroes, including several Alabama natives, are honored:

Rosa Parks, whose refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus led to a Supreme Court ruling against segregation; the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, and Martin Luther King. The artwork honoring King, "A Monument: The Birmingham Jail," is an almost life-sized cell that is charged with powerful emotion. "The chains woven through the cell, and the heavy work gloves and boots that adorn the bars evoke the forced labor of slavery, the dangerous and poorly paid labor of African Americans in Birmingham's steel mills, and the participation of many unrecognized people in the civil rights struggle."3 Inside the jail, leaning against a toilet, is one of Minter's signs that refers to King's famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," which was written on toilet paper. It reads,

1963, BIRMINGHAM JAIL REV DR MARTIN LUTHER KING LETTER FORM [SIC] THE BIRMINGHAM JAIL WRITTEN ON TOILET PAPER TO ALL MANKIND IN·GOD LOVE PEACE THOUSAND OF AFRICAN SCHOOL CHILDREN PUT IN THIS JAIL AND IN ANIMAL CAGES AT FAIRPARK FOR HUMANRIGHT TO BE FREE WE SHALL OVERCOME

The sign is a fitting tribute to Dr. King and also to the ideals that inspired Minter to build his garden. Nicknamed the "Peacemaker," Minter says he turns to the universal language of art to communicate God's peace and hope for all humankind.

Carol Crown Associate Professor Art History, The University of Memphis Photographs by Carol Crown.

1. William Arnett and Paul Arnett, Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Vol. 2, (Atlanta, Georgia: Tinwood Books, 2001), 503. 2. Ibid. 502. 3. Cheryl Rivers, "Joe Minter," in Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South, the forthcoming catalog to the exhibition of the same name, opening at the University of Memphis, 2004.



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