Profile: Henry Speller (1900-1997)

Henry Speller was an American artist and blues musician working out of Memphis, Tennessee. His style of drawing and painting is characterized by ornate, colorful, intimidating figures which he likened to “characters from Dallas

Life

Henry Speller was born the eldest son of Rosie Edwards and Robert Speller. Henry was raised by his maternal grandparents, Ike and Zannie Simpson, in the Panther Burn settlement of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. They were a sharecropping family, mostly on cotton fields, and Henry attended school until he was twelve years old. He then began full-time farm labor to support his grandmother after his grandfather was forced to flee Panther Burn after an altercation with a white employer, who threatened his life.[] Eventually the whole family moved to northern Mississippi, but Speller dreamed of going North along the Great Migration.

Speller married three times in his life. In the 1930s he married Elnora Davis, only to separate shortly thereafter. Between 1939 and 1941, he married Mary Lee Shorter, who was from Memphis, Tennessee. Seeing an opportunity to move even a little further north, Speller and Mary moved to Memphis in 1941.  Together, he and Mary had five children before their divorce.

In Memphis, he worked a succession of day-labor jobs, and by night played blues at venues on the neighboring, historic Beale Street. Speller was an accomplished blues musician who played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  When Howlin’ Wolf moved to Chicago, he urged Speller to join him and become a part of his permanent ensemble, but Speller declined, saying Chicago was too cold for him. He retired from working as a grounds keeper for the Memphis city parks commission in the mid-1960s.

A few years before his retirement, Speller met Georgia Verges, a fellow artist. They married in 1964 and had a “near perfect marriage”, according to Speller’s son William. They had no children together. Georgia was also a painter whose subjects were often undulating figures engaged in multi-person orgies set on colorful landscapes. She became very ill in the mid-1980s and stopped creating work a few years before her death in 1988. Speller’s art and health declined soon after her death.  He began to lose his sight in 1990, and therefore the will and ability to make art. He died in 1997.

Career

Henry Speller began drawing and painting when he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1941. He also collected used, discarded materials to fix, re-appropriate, or sell while he worked for the Memphis sanitation department.

Materials

Throughout his career, Speller maintained a preference for large format paper for his drawings, typically 19 in × 20 in (480 mm × 510 mm). He outlined his subjects in graphite pencil, then filled in the figures and block patterns with crayons or colored pencils. All of his works fill the page to the edges, except his renderings of single figures, which stand alone against a white background. Speller made thousands of drawings in his life-time. Despite his many moves across Memphis, hundreds of his drawings have survived.

Subjects

Speller is best known for his drawings of detailed houses, modes of transportation (trains, cars, riverboats, and planes), and adorned figures, particularly women. His figures are often white women with angular faces, round breasts made of concentric circles, and exposed genitals with common southern Caucasian names, like “Katie Mae” and “Lisa Jean”. Through these characters, Speller creates a metaphor for mobility and freedom in the Jim Crow South, which white women, and even some black women, can attain, but are inaccessible to him.

Patterns play a crucial role in Speller’s composition. Stripes and grids function as movement from one plane to another, such as from clothes to skin or from inside to outside of a building. Art historians have drawn a connection between Speller’s patterns and African American quilt-making traditions, with their improvised rectangular and square grids.

Slipping daily between unending manual labor and the solace of blues nightclubs brought forth the contrasts in Speller’s work. His visual style, and those that mimic it, has become known as “blues aesthetic.”  Blues music influences this visual aesthetic by creating fantasy from pain observed first-hand. “This theme in turn fits within the realm of the grotesque and the abject, depicting a shifting, wavy body that threatens to exceed containment.” 

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