From Memories of Country Life Mattie Lou O'kelley Makes Magic Landscapes
11/12/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
Walking down a dirt road outside Maysville, Ga., Mattie Lou O'Kelley, 76, remembers the farm of her childhood. "We all picked cotton over there. We had mules and we raised some corn and some sugar cane. We fattened our own hogs and we ground our own meal. The cellar was full of Irish potatoes and the yard was full of chickens." And she adds proudly, "We were very self-sufficient. It was an awful hard life, but as I look back we had a lot of fun."
All that was long ago. The homestead was bought by a timber company, the farmhouse is gone, and O'Kelley lives alone in a five-room house in Decatur, Ga. There she summons up remembrances of bygone days in a, self-taught style that has earned her the sobriquet of Grandma Moses of the South. Her autobiographical From the Hills of Georgia (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $14.95) this year won her an award as Author of the Year in Juvenile Literature.
In the book, her captions are as evocative of a bucolic past as her imagery. "The peach trees and apple trees are blooming, but my favorite is the wild plum—soft as baby lace," she writes of Springtime in Georgia. "Mama hurries us away to the field, where Papa's plowing, shouting, 'Come hive the bees! They're swarming!' "
O'Kelley's art has also graced the covers of Antique Monthly, Smucker's annual report (a foldout scene of blackberry picking) and a UNICEF Christmas card. She's signed a deal with an Ohio company for reproductions of her Hills paintings on a series of 12 plates. Says Robert Bishop, director of Manhattan's Museum of American Folk Art, "I have been looking at folk art for more than 25 years and I have never experienced a thrill as I did in seeing Mattie Lou O'Kelley's work."
Nothing gives O'Kelley more pleasure than the local eminence she's achieved. An honored guest of the Business Committee for the Arts, Inc., O'Kelley last May was picked up by a limousine (which she calls a "ly-mousine") and whisked off to a shindig at Atlanta's High Museum of Art. Remembers O'Kelley, "When I was a little girl I would dream a lot about being famous, and this is like that dream coming true."
Actually, in matters of art, Mattie Lou was a late bloomer. She didn't take up painting until she was 60, and then only because "I was lonesome." The youngest girl of eight children (four boys, four girls), she quit school after the ninth grade and stayed on the farm until she was 35, when she and her mother, Mary Bell, bought a little house in Maysville. To make ends meet, she took a series of mill jobs, but "I either quit or got fired." Afterward she worked at such odd jobs as housekeeper and hedge trimmer and "learned to make do or do without."
Then in 1969 O'Kelley ordered some paints and brushes from a Sears catalog. "I got out some books that were buried away and read about how to paint," she says. "I never thought I would get anywhere with it. I was just doing it to please myself." Exhibitions as a member of the Maysville Art Club and her status as a finalist in a Ladies' Home Journal art contest changed her mind. And in 1975 O'Kelley took some of her work to Atlanta's High Museum.
"The museum director said my work was good and he would put it in the museum gift shop," recalls O'Kelley. "I didn't know what folk art was, but I was tickled to death." There her paintings caught the eye of Bishop, then curator of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., who sold eight of them for $1,500 each. "That was more money than my father made in his lifetime," chuckles O'Kelley, whose works now fetch from $3,500 to $25,000.
O'Kelley, whose favorite pastime is watching Saturday night TV "rasslin," has wrestled away her own demons. She's now working on a series of 28 paintings for a book "about a family going to a circus and stopping, to watch a possum hunt" and a novel called The Twins' Place, based on one of her paintings. "It's got romance, murder and fire," she says. "I'm not bound by conventions," says O'Kelley. "I can express myself now."