Myrtice Snead West (1923-2010) is among the category of artists who are best described as self-taught. Like others who are included within this category, West came from an economically underprivileged background and thus had little chance for a formal education in the arts. Her work, and that of artists like her, is generally called by confusing and often misused terms such as "folk," "primitive," "visionary," and "outsider" art. Myrtice West is among the best known of these artists.
Myrtice Snead was born in rural Cherokee County, in northeast Alabama on the Georgia border, on September 14, 1923, to William and Verely Snead. Her father was a farmer and proprietor of a rolling store, which brought goods to rural people from the 1920s to the 1940s when transportation was not widely available. Her father liked to travel, and the family, which also included two older brothers, lived in many places in Cherokee County and north Georgia. West went to almost every school in the county, completing her education up to the eighth grade. Later in life, she completed a correspondence course and obtained her GED. At 14, she was baptized in Spring Creek and fully embraced her Christian faith. On December 24, 1940, Myrtice married Wallace West, whose family lived near her grandparents.
After their marriage, the couple moved to Atlanta for the better job opportunities, despite West's wish to stay in Cherokee County. In Atlanta, Wallace took a job at a stove foundry. When World War II began, Wallace enlisted and became an anti-aircraft trainer. Myrtice moved with him to bases throughout the South, except at planting time, when she returned to Cherokee County to help her parents with farming. Wallace later served in Asia, and when he returned home, they settled in Cherokee County. After many years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child, West was diagnosed with a massive growth in her stomach that had invaded one of her ovaries and her uterus. Doctors removed her ovary and informed West that the odds were greatly against her becoming pregnant. Trying not to dwell on their misfortune, and ever interested in new endeavors, the couple decided to take up photography. Myrtice earned money picking cotton to buy a camera and enrolled in a correspondence course to learn hand-tinting. (Before color photography, every commercial photographer hired someone to hand color photographs.) Myrtice hung a sheet as a backdrop inside their home, and people from the community came to be photographed. About this time, West became pregnant, but lost the baby. It was after this disappointment that West painted her first picture. Lacking the money to buy paints, she used the dye in crepe paper like watercolor.
In 1956, after 18 years of marriage, Myrtice West gave birth to a healthy baby girl that she and Wallace name Martha Jane. The baby grew into a spirited, independent child who escaped serious injury several times. At 15, Martha Jane married local boy James Brett Barnett, despite warnings from her parents. Barnett would prove to be abusive to both Martha Jane and the couple's two children. Lacking the ability to do anything about the abuse, Myrtice endeavored to keep busy with her photography and the Coosa Printing Company that she and Wallace had established. She published a paperback book, Cherokee Looking Back, with drawings of local landmarks that Wallace sketched.
When Martha Jane moved overseas to Japan with her husband, Myrtice became greatly concerned about the safety of her only child. Unable to sleep, she was inspired to paint. She had no canvas so she took an old couch cover, stretched it over a frame, and coated it with white paint. She stayed up all night and sketched what would be the first of her works based on the Book of Revelation in the Bible. West's art comforted her in her daughter's absence, and she hoped that it would be a comfort and inspiration to those who saw it. During a seven-year period, West produced 14 paintings depicting scenes from Revelation. Martha Jane and her husband returned to the United States in 1980, and then the couple separated and divorced in 1985. Subsequently, she moved with her children to Birmingham, where she acquired a position with a printing company. In October 1986, Martha Jane and her children traveled back to Centre in Cherokee County, where her parents and in-laws lived, to celebrate her daughter's birthday. While visiting her in-laws' home, Martha Jane's former husband beat her severely and then shot her to death with her two children nearby. Despite her anguish, West knew she must fight for custody of her grandchildren; after a grueling, hard-fought court battle, Myrtice received custody.
In the 1980s, West began showing some of her art in a local festival in Rome, Georgia. She offered her "memory" paintings, which were based on her experiences on the farm and on the scenery in rural Alabama, for sale, and she also displayed her Revelation paintings in the hope that the messages about good versus evil in them would inspire others. A businesswoman from Anniston took slides of the Revelation paintings and sent them to the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA), where gallery manager Miriam Fowler viewed them. Fowler was preparing for an exhibition of "outsider" artists at the Alabama Artists Gallery in 1991 and approached Myrtice West about participating in the upcoming exhibition and catalogue, Outsider Artists of Alabama, published by ASCA. Four of the Revelation paintings were included in the exhibition and the catalogue. As a result of the exhibition, several Alabama dealers began to show an interest in West's work.
This attention came at a time when Wallace West was diagnosed with cancer, the couple still had their two grandchildren at
home, and Myrtice's 92-year-old mother was living with her. As her art came to public attention, the value of her paintings
quickly increased from selling in the tens of dollars to selling in the thousands of dollars. Her striking Revelation paintings drew the most praise and were in
the greatest demand with potential buyers. Not wishing to part with the originals, West made copies for sale. The copies did
not have the luminescent quality of the originals, however, and collectors clamored for the original set. Finally, Myrtice
permitted an attorney from Georgia to accept bids for the 14 original paintings. From this time her fame grew, and she was
included in additional exhibitions and publications. In 1999, West's Revelation paintings were featured in the book, Wonders to Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West.
The sales of her artworks enabled her to help care for her family, but she suffered additional tragedy in 2005, when her home burned to the ground. She lost all but 13 paintings as well as almost all of her personal possessions, including all of her art supplies. In June of that same year, she also lost her husband to cancer, after 64 years of marriage. Her health began to fail as well, and she suffered from heart problems and failing eyesight. Despite the tragedies, she continued to express her deep faith in letters to all who had helped her with her art since the 1980s. West passed away on April 12, 2010, at her home in Centre. In her lifetime, Myrtice Snead West, with little education has, with words and pictures, reached out to encourage and inspire.
Crown, Carol, and Myrtice West. Revelation: The Paintings of Myrtice West, December 16, 1995-January 26, 1996. Memphis: Art Museum of the University of Memphis, 1995.
———. Wonders to Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West. Memphis, Tenn.: Mustang Publishing, 1999.
Fowler, Miriam. Outsider Artists in Alabama. Montgomery: Alabama State Council on the Arts, 1991.
Kemp, Kathy and Keith Boyer. Revelations: Alabama's Visionary Fold Artists. Birmingham: Crane Hill Publishers, 1993.
Miriam Rogers Fowler
Published November 19, 2008
Last updated August 15, 2013