The biblical imagination of folk sculptor Annie Hooper

Earlier this month I visited the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and was struck by a large ensemble of painted driftwood sculptures by “outsider” artist Annie Hooper (1897–1986). Arranged on a broad platform in the main gallery, the figures are a mixture of apostles, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs, pilgrims, pray-ers, angels, dancers, and mourners. They are but a small fraction of the thousands such figures that filled Annie’s remote coastal North Carolina home, where they beckoned friends and strangers alike to come in, take a look around, and hear God’s good word. Annie loved to tell stories through these her “symbols,” as she called them, interweaving her own life experiences with the narrative of scripture to communicate the hope of the gospel.

Annie Hooper installation (AFAM)
Annie Hooper (American, 1897–1986), Art environment (works from the northwest bedroom and dining room), Buxton, North Carolina, 1950s–1986. Driftwood, cement, paint, and shells, dimensions variable (average figure height 17 in.). American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2018.6.1–170. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Annie (Miller) Hooper was born in 1897 in Buxton, North Carolina, on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks. She was raised in a devout Methodist household that included her twelve siblings—one of them her twin sister, Mamie—and fourteen foster children.

After taking a few courses at Blackstone College for Girls in Virginia, she married John Hooper and moved across Pamlico Sound to Stumpy Point, North Carolina, where John was a commercial fisherman. Their son, Edgar, was born a year later, when Annie was nineteen.[1]

Annie was very involved in her church community—playing the organ for services, preaching sermons when called upon, teaching Sunday school for children and adults, writing poems for the church newsletter, composing songs.

During World War II, when Edgar was deployed to the South Pacific and John left to work in the naval shipyards in Norfolk, Annie experienced her first bout of depression, which was accompanied by blackouts. Her second bout came when Edgar, after returning safely home from overseas, developed lung problems that required him to convalesce for a year in the mountains. Overcome with the fear of losing him, she suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to seek treatment in Raleigh (likely electroconvulsive therapy).

Shortly before her four months of psychiatric care, Annie and John had moved back to her hometown of Buxton and opened a motel. She returned to Buxton in need of recuperation, and she turned often to a large illustrated Bible for diversion and comfort, filling her mind with images of the Divine at work.

Annie Hooper
Annie Hooper with her Sermon on the Mount, Buxton, NC, ca. 1983. Photo: Roger Manley.

Then one day in her fifties, Annie “heard voices and angels guiding her to create figures” that “were to reveal the more pleasant, life-affirming aspects of Christian storytelling,” as she later reported to folklorist Roger Manley.[2] She went out to the beach, picked up a suggestive piece of driftwood, fashioned a face on it with English putty, and colored it with leftover house paint. It was Moses on Mount Nebo, at the end of his life, looking over the river Jordan into the promised land (Deut. 32:48–52; 34:1–5).

Hooper, Annie_Moses
Moses on Mount Nebo

Hooper, Annie_Moses (detail)

Pleased with the result, she crafted more biblical figures using those same simple materials. She would often add seashells for eyes and cement limbs.

This art practice seemed to have a healing effect on her.

As her number of sculptures grew, Annie arranged them into tableaux around her house, starting in the dining room and a bedroom and expanding over a thirty-five-year period into every square inch of empty space—hallways, stairs, closets, tables, piano tops, stove burners, etc. “She had a kind of Cecil B. DeMille vision of the sweep of multitudes with casts of thousands,” Manley told me, “while her house was all but uninhabitable from the sheer volume of work packed into it. She used yardsticks to reach the light switches, and could barely get to the kitchen sink. The overall effect was dazzling, if a bit claustrophobically breathtaking.”[3]

Annie Hooper installation (AFAM) (detail)

Annie made use of preexisting furniture to raise elements of certain scenes, creating a spatial dynamic. “In Annie’s house,” Manley said, “angels gazed down on the shepherds with their flocks from atop dressers and chairs, the golden calf was elevated on a stool, the ‘mount’ in the Sermon on the Mount was the dining room table, and so on.” She separated the scenes with garlands of tinsel and bouquets of plastic flowers and strung Christmas lights through them. “Changing colored light played over the groupings to impart movement and dazzle.”[4]

View photos of the original art environment here.

By the time Annie died in 1986 she had made about 2,500 figurative sculptures[5] inspired by the Old and New Testaments, on subjects like Jacob’s Ladder, the Exodus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Belshazzar’s Feast, the Visitation, the Flight to Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount, the Holy Women at the Tomb, Paul and Silas in Jail, and many more. Notably, there’s no Crucifixion scene; Annie said she couldn’t bear to put nails in the hands and feet of Christ.[6] And so we get empty crosses instead.

The final group she worked on, left unfinished when she died, was forty-seven grieving Hebrew mothers who had lost their sons to Pharaoh’s death edict (Exod. 1:22). This story of infant male genocide, along with its correlative in Matthew 2:16–18, is one she returned to frequently throughout her four decades of art making, as it held strong resonances for her. She likened her son’s being sent away to war to his being thrown to crocodiles.

Hooper, Annie_Mourning woman
Mourning women

Mournful moms are everywhere in Annie’s work, Manley said—“surrounding Lazarus, overlooking scores of dead babies, at the foot of the cross(es). She identified with all women experiencing loss. In WWII dead sailors (mostly American and British) occasionally washed up on the beaches near her house after their ships had been sunk by U-boats, and she pitied their mothers as well. It was a major thread running through the whole display.”[7]

Not all the figures correspond to characters in the Bible. Some are simply “bringing the message,” Annie said.[8] They may illustrate a hymn, such as “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” or “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Hooper, Annie_Cross

Wanting to share these visual stories, Annie frequently welcomed visitors into her home, giving performative tours that involved narration and interactivity. For example, she would lean the Jesus figure over the prone Lazarus figure and bid him rise, or she would roll the stone away from Christ’s tomb while saying, “This is what God wants each of us to do—to roll away the stone of unbelief from our hearts.”[9]

Lazarus

Hooper, Annie_Lazarus (detail)

In 1978 Annie’s husband became paralyzed from a stroke, and she stopped creating until John’s death in 1982 so that she could take care of him. She was devastated by the gradual loss of her best friend to whom she had been married for sixty-plus years and who had always supported her (some would say eccentric) calling. But even as John lay ill and as she grieved, she still welcomed people in to experience the mixed-media spectacle she had built in their living quarters, as she wanted it to continue fulfilling its main purpose of edification.

She set up hundreds of signs with messages—handwritten in marker on pieces of paper and foam meat trays—to accompany the figures so that people could take their own self-guided tours. Some of these consist of Bible quotations or hymn lyrics, but most are distillations of her own spiritual wisdom, in her own words, or else personal prayers. Examples include:

  • “God’s intent is that man should come to Him and enjoy Him forever.”
  • “Through the ages, heaven will never cease to resound with the glad hallelujahs from the grateful hearts of the redeemed.”
  • “The cry of the heart for God is the cry that brings down blessings from that high source.”
  • “There is a place where the tears of the forgiver and the forgiven mingle together (at the foot of the cross).”
  • “God’s work on the cross brought a world estranged by sin back to its Creator.”
  • “Whatever honors God, help me to take delight in.”
  • “Lord, bring me to the place where mine eye seeth Thee.”
  • (And the occasionally humorous) “Keep out of the manger, Santa Clause [sic]. That belongs to the Baby Jesus.”
Hooper, Annie_Jesus
Jesus (with donkey in foreground, from another scene)

Reflecting back on her life’s work, Annie said,

I feel like I’ve been dedicated and set apart for God’s work. I believe that, but I haven’t gotten to the point that I’m perfect. I’m not an angel, I’m an aged imp. I can only live in hope, fully believing that God will bless me by making me a blessing to others, and I think I have been. When people come, they come seeking something of the supernatural, and they get it when they get God’s word. Here they get not only God’s word but they get a symbol resembling the thought that they have.

My work is all the work of love, working out the biblical scenes that will last through the ages long after I’m gone. That is my motive, that is my purpose, making figures with some spiritual thought to go along. When I look back over the work I’ve done it amazes me—but still it is not something to be worshipped. It is something that will tell a story.[10]

In a different interview, at age eighty-seven, Annie described how she works in collaboration with God, in a sense, who has uniquely equipped her for the work:

I feel like I’ve had help. I feel like the Lord’s given me the desire to do, and the talent to do, and the material to work with, and the time to do. So I really feel like I’ve been a coworker, not only in making the material that I have, but also explaining it to those who come.[11]

Hooper, Annie_Angels
Annie Hooper installation (AFAM) (detail)

Brimming with faith and battling emotional and mental distress, Annie created a world, channeling her pain and anxieties as well as her hopes and joys into the making of hundreds upon hundreds of sculptures inspired by sacred scripture. Some of the figures look lost or forlorn, whereas others look peaceful, even beatific; still others appear playful. She felt she could identify with many of the people represented—e.g., Job in his affliction, the Virgin Mary in her surrender.

Annie saw in these biblical stories a reflection of the human experience and assurances of how God meets us in our brokenness (in our doubts, fears, failures, sickness, grief, or what have you), bringing salvation. Lament and praise are joined together in her oeuvre.

Unfortunately, the AFAM exhibition does not preserve the narrative groupings of the figures, instead arranging them roughly by size and placing them all on the same level facing forward, rather than having them interact with one another. There are no visual dividers or spotlights to help viewers navigate the bunches. As such, and lacking much of Annie’s interpretive signage, it’s nearly impossible to precisely identify any of the characters or to discern a plot—though Manley was able to confirm a few of my hunches (labeled in my captions) and to guide me in identifying a few other figures.

I was puzzled by the presence of what I thought might be a bear.

Hooper, Annie_Animal

Manley suggested that it is probably a Gadarene swine from the story of Jesus healing a demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) but that it could also be from Annie’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” scene, which featured a large human figure lying down on a piece of green shag carpet (a green pasture) surrounded by scary black and purple creatures.

Even in her lifetime, Manley informed me, Annie’s scenes were unfixed, constantly shifting and evolving. “Many of Annie’s figures played multiple roles,” he said. “If she had to move a scene to a different part of the house to make way for more, and the new location was too small to accommodate the entire scene, she would repurpose the ‘extras’ and make them part of some other scene. Her environment was not static—every time I went (perhaps 20 times?) a majority of the scenes would have been relocated and rearranged. Only a few ‘stayed put.’”[12]

Roger Manley, whose friendship with and research on Annie I’ve relied on extensively for this article, became the caretaker of Annie’s work after her death. He first encountered it in 1970 when, on Christmas break after his first semester at Davidson College, he was hitchhiking and happened to be picked up by one of Annie’s grandsons. Thinking Manley would be amused by his grandma’s sculptures, he brought him to the house. Manley was enthralled by what he saw. He took photos and returned many times since, each time developing a keener sense of responsibility to preserve the work for posterity.

At Manley’s behest, Catherine Peck, a graduate student in the folklore program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spent August 1984 at Annie’s house in Buxton, labeling and photographing her work and interviewing her. When Annie died in 1986, she bequeathed all her sculptures to the Jargon Society in Highlands, North Carolina, which Manley helped arrange.

Annie Hooper installation (detail)

Ownership was transferred to North Carolina State University around 1988, when Manley curated the first solo exhibition of Annie’s work, A Blessing from the Source, at the university’s Visual Arts Center (now the Gregg Museum of Art & Design), showcasing six of her scenes and twenty-five photographs. The exhibition opened with an international symposium, the United States’ very first on visionary/self-taught/outsider art, which included participants from the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne (Geneviéve Roulin), the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection (Monika Kinley), the Adolf Wölfli Foundation (Elka Spoerri), the Prinzhorn Collection (Inge Jádi), Rebecca Puharich (later to become Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore), Roger Cardinal (author of Outsider Art, which named the “field”), John MacGregor (author of The Discovery of the Art of the Insane), Sam Farber (one of AFAM’s great champions, who largely funded their previous building next to MoMA), and others.

In 1995 Manley organized a much larger exhibition at NC State, A Multitude of Memory: The Life Work of Annie Hooper, that displayed the whole lot they had inherited.

In 2017 the Gregg Museum (of which Manley is the director) transferred the Annie Hooper Bequest to the Kohler Foundation for conservation treatment and stewardship. While many of the sculptures remain in the permanent collection of the Gregg and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center kept 233, the rest have been donated to nine other museums across the country—including the American Folk Art Museum, where I had the pleasure of being introduced to Annie’s work!

If you’d like to find out more about Annie Hooper, check out the freely accessible Digital Southern Folklife Collection at UNC, which houses four audio interviews and three on-site video tours with Annie, and the nineteen-page exhibition catalog from 1988, A Blessing from the Source.

All photos in this article, except the one of Annie Hooper, were taken by me (Victoria Emily Jones) at the multi-artist Multitudes exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan in August 2022. The exhibition runs through September 5.

NOTES:

1. ^ “The Life Summary of Edgar Ormond,” FamilySearch. Cf. Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1, Catherine Peck Collection, 1981–1988, in the Southern Folklife Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.

2. ^ “Timeline of Annie Hooper’s Life,” compiled by Cynthia Pansing, researcher for SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), May 6, 1988. Quoted on the wall text for the Multitudes exhibition, January 21–September 5, 2022, American Folk Art Museum, New York.

3. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.

4. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.

5. ^ “As for numbers of objects, there are about 2500 human and angel figures, dead babies, birds, crocodiles, sheep, lions, etc., and some 500 more ‘accessories’: bases for inserting artificial flowers, driftwood stumps that provided landscaping, gold-painted miniature furniture (all crudely made by Annie), textiles (shrouds, swaddling cloths, etc.), concrete food items (for various suppers and feasts, loaves and fishes). The original inventory included everything—bunches of plastic flowers, rotating color-wheel lights, garlands of tinsel—hence the 5000 number. The materials these were made of did not survive long-term storage, however; over time, low-grade plastics begin to turn gooey or brittle, tinsel sheds, etc., so the object count shrank.” Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.

6. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 6: Side 1.

7. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022. For more on military warfare waged off the east coast of the US during World War II, see Kevin P. Duffus, “U-Boats Off the Outer Banks: When World War II Was Fought Off North Carolina’s Beaches,” Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 2008.

8. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 5: Side 1.

9. ^ A Blessing from the Source: The Annie Hooper Bequest (exhibition catalog) (Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 1988), 13.

10. ^ Qtd. A Blessing from the Source, 19.

11. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1.

12. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.

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