Coming soon to the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art — “Mattie Lou O’Kelly: The Long Journey to Success,” an homage to the life and work of Georgia folk artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley. This latest exhibit will be hosted in the museum’s Rubin Gallery.
O’Kelley was born in 1908 on her family’s farm near Maysville, Georgia. The death of her younger brother in 1919 marked the end of her formal education as she was required to work the family’s farm. Her father’s death during the Great Depression brought about an end to family stability and financial security. As the only unmarried child, she was expected to care for her ailing mother — she worked as a cook, seamstress and factory worker to provide financial support.
It was not until age 60 that O’Kelley could retire to a humble shack where she would begin making art in earnest. She first began working in colored chalks on paper which she sold in flea markets, fairs and even the front steps of the High Museum, where her work would eventually catch the eye of then-director Gudmund Vigtel. He was so taken by O’Kelley’s work that he acquired it on the spot for the museum, making it the first example of self-taught art to enter the High Museum’s permanent collection.
Having finally achieved some financial stability, O’Kelley would go on to be a highly accomplished folk artist. Since her death in 1997, her estate established long-term endowments to the High Museum to acquire art from self-taught artists.
This upcoming exhibit was curated by John Daniel Tilford, curator of collections, with contributions from curatorial intern Maria Coles ’24. Later in the semester, both will offer lectures about the artist. Coles will present “Visions of the South: Memory Paintings of O’Kelley” (Oct. 19) and Tilford will present “Mattie Lou O’Kelley: The Long Journey to Success” (Nov. 2).
“The Long Journey to Success” will show alongside “OUMA Collects 2022: Recent Acquisitions,” an exhibition of work in the museum’s permanent collection. Moreover, many of the works included in the exhibit come from Atlanta artists and highlight the rich diversity of style in the museum’s home city.
On view are the cut tin angels of R.A. Miller, carved beech bowls from Matt Moulthrop, a sculpture from Cuban-American artist Alejando Aguilera, a quilt of civil rights leaders by Kitara Ramses and “hey, slim,” a painting from the university’s recently announced artist-in-residence Shanequa Gay, who will host special events throughout the year as part of her residency.
“Mattie Lou O’Kelley: The Long Journey to Success” will be on view at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art from September 27 – December 4. Stay tuned for the latest lectures and events.