Jesse Howard, The Man With Many Sign's and Wonderers
Jesse Howard was a crank. He was cantankerous and at odds with the world around him. He even named his own homestead "Sorehead Hill". Of all the words his family and neighbors, or for that matter, he might use to describe himself, the last may have been "artist". Though in fact, words would come to be his artistic medium, expressing his ideas and views using the printed word would be his way of engaging the world.

Jesse Howard was born on June 4, 1885 in Shamrock, Missouri. He and his twin sister, Etta Myrtle, were the youngest of ten children. Howard's early years were typical of the time in pre-industrial rural America. As a young man with a roaming nature, he traveled the West in search of work. He worked in Wyoming and as far west as California threshing hay. He traveled by rail and according to Howard spent some time "hoboing". Eventually, he returned home to Missouri in 1905. Though his restlessness did not abate, he did marry and finally settle in the town of Fulton in 1916. He cobbled together a living doing odd jobs and manual labor, while pursuing his more creative endeavors. This involved the construction of Biblically inspired burial scenes, as well as model airplanes decorated with patriotic inscriptions to decorate his property and attract the curiosity of his neighbors. These unusual additions to the town's scenery, together with Howard's abrasive personality resulted in acts of vandalism. Outraged, Jesse Howard would now be inspired to create the work for which he would become renown.

Jesse Howard had a long strained relationship with his neighbors and community. He was opinionated and vocal about local politics, religion, and the foilbles of his fellow Fulton citizens. Now he began to paint hand lettered signs which served to protest his treatment by the vandals that had destroyed his creations and the ignorance of his neighbors in tolerating it. His signs multiplied in number and ire. Full of Biblical, political and personal references, when one was destroyed, he made ten more. Soon, his fence, yard and ultimately his house would be covered with his signage. Predictably, one response fed the other and soon Jesse Howard and the town of Fulton were in the midst of a full fledged feud. In 1952, some began a campaign to have Howard committed to the State Asylum, but ultimately lacked the required number of signatures on their petition. Jesse Howard's signs, however, had no trouble multipying in number. Though they would regularly be stolen or destroyed, Jesse could always create more. Howard's protests were not limited to print. In 1954, he traveled by bus to Washington, D.C. to complain directly to his Congressional representative. This resulted in his being forcefully removed from the Capitol and put on a bus back to Missouri. Howard returned home, frustrated, but determined to continue his ongoing commentary in print about the world around him. Soon his yard became a dense profusion of signage. Words upon words were posted everywhere, including the exterior of his house.

While becoming a pariah in his home town, Jesse Howard became renown in the wider world of folk art. He and his environment became a destination for those interested in the resurgence of folk art in the 1960's. It didn't hurt that Jesse was such a character, his orneriness and bravado on full display for those who came to see him. Jesse continued to practice his very individual art form for the rest of his life. Old age forced him to leave "Sorehead Hill" and he died in 1983.

Jesse Howard was challenging and so is his art. In a world that might prefer to take its folk artists sweet and have their art be just as palatable, Jesse Howard was more sour. Particularly difficult was the form that his art took. Rather than cloak his protests behind the veil of an image or picture, Howard put his ideas into words and this is where his importance in the folk art world is derived. Choosing not to "get up on a soapbox" in the town square or harangue townspeople from his front porch, he created a text centered form of art that became more powerful as it grew in scale and depth. The printed word was his medium. The black block words, patterned with red highlights and emphatic pointing fingers in his text are powerful and compelling.

The sign by Jesse Howard featured from our collection at the top of this article captures the essences of his art. At he core of the text is the Biblical reference to the Book of Job and Howard's interpretation of its theme of alienation. At the forefront is always his insistence on "free thought and free speech" as the foundation of his art. His detailed knowledge of his subject, as always, is complete, down to the number of words in The Book of Job. The sign was created in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial of American Independence when Howard was 91 years old. It shows some decline in the force and energy of his script, but the visual flow of words is strong and his message is as pointed as ever.

Jesse Howard's art is included in the permanent collections of The American Folk Art Museum and the American Visionary Arts Museum. His work has been exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally and is part of major public and private collections.

Jesse Howard was a protestor. He held firmly to his right of free speech and to express his thoughts as he saw fit. He placed himself in the American tradition of protest and social commentary and of forming that energy into popular art. Woody Guthrie was also a powerful source of social commentary and political protest. His folk songs are a key component of our national discourse on issues of equality and justice. In 1998 Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora proposed a project to British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg. She had discovered in her father's archives a cache of unheard lyrics, never put to song. She thought Bragg was a kindred spirit who could set the lyrics to music and present them to a contemporary audience. The result was "Mermaid Avenue", an album of songs created by Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco. This song, "Christ for President" combines Jesse Howard's two favorite subjects, God and Country. I think he may have liked it.

♫ 09 Christ For President.m4a