Photo: William Arnett, 1987

Bessie Harvey

Alcoa, Tennessee
1929 - 1994

God Is the Artist

Bessie Harvey

This is Bessie Harvey, folk artist, so I’m called. I’m really not the artist. God is the artist in my work; nature and insects, they shape my work for me, because they belong to God. I belong to God, and all things belong to God, because it’s in his Word that all things are made to him, that without him there’s not anything made. I know that my art is a peculiar kind of art, but he says that his people are peculiar people and I just want to give all the praise and glory to him for my work. My work is something that tells of love, and he is love, so he let the insects and time and nature go in front and do the work and then he gives me the insight to bring it out. He uses the hands that he gave to me with his spirit in the hands and in the mind and in the heart and just in me, he’s all in me, and he expects me to bring it out, so that I can tell the world today that he is my life and he the artist in my work.

There is a piece that’s called The Poison of the Lying Tongues. He speaks of the tongue so much of being a thing that will cause us to go down in great sorrow, because the tongue has never been tamed. He speaks that all animals and everything in the earth has been tamed by mankind except the tongue, and it cannot be tamed,tongues coming out of the lying mouth, and it’s saying to the world today, that the tongue can’t be tamed. So before you use it to say things that will hurt yourself or someone else, remember that love covers a multitude of faults, and it’s a fault to go around hurting others.

My greatest hope is in my believing and trusting and knowing, from self experience, that truly, God is real. The art is magic, he’s majestic, and the art is from him, so it is magic. But for it to be good for you is to know that Bessie Harvey is not magic, only the one that lives within her, the spirit, is the magic one.

I get the opportunity to say in the work that God loves us all and he is God, regardless of whatever you believe him to be, whatever you believe it to be, it is your God. But there is but one, and that’s the great “I am,” and every one of us use the words “I am,” and the great “I am” has established his love and himself within us, that we be just as we say “I am.”

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I am the sculptress that God has taught me to be, allowing me to be, through loving him, believing and trusting in him, knowing that the little girl was put into my mother’s womb so many years ago. My mom told me that I was born with a disease, tuberculosis, and the doctors had told her that I wouldn’t live to get six months old, so, with all the other kids, she just kind of, I thought, didn’t love me. But she told me before she died in ’74, she said,”Bessie Ruth, God is going to bless you,” and she told me that she never got too close to me because she was always afraid of losing me. But see, the Mighty One had already put this there, that I would go through these trials and tribulations, that I would understand today a mother with a lot of children needing somebody to talk to. I would be that one, because I never had that one, and it is a pleasure to reach out to anybody in love, when you haven’t had it yourself. Sometimes it makes us mean, but then, whom God set free, the Son, Jesus, we’re free indeed, and he set me free. I didn’t know how to hate, because he is love, so everything that comes against me, I replaced it with love.

And not being able to give it to mankind, I started doing the little people that he allowed me to make, and I could talk to them about my problems, and sometimes I would make one and it would look straight at me, in my eyes, and I would ask it questions like “Who are you? Where did you come from?” It would say “An artist.” I didn’t know nothing about being an artist! I’d never been in an art show, I never even studied art. I’m a fourth-grade graduate, and back in the times that I was going to school, art wasn’t taught, until you were in, I guess, the last years of high school or something like that.

But even when I began to do the sculptures, to me they were my dolls, they were my freedom from this world, that I could go into them, and I could talk to God, and that the spirit would release me from all of the hurt, and I could hear him speak and talk to me. I could see in the eyes of the dolls I could love, sometimes confusion, but I knew that they were there for the purpose of me sharing what I felt with them. And I began to even see them in the walls, in the paneling, and they were all reaching out to me in love, and I began to make more and more and more.

I went to work at a hospital here, and I worked there, and I was so thankful to have a job, that I could earn a little money, more than I had ever earned before. And I got there in time for the show that they have at the hospital. They have a little art show every year, and I had a piece that was called Banda. It was a big bird that would fly me away when troubles were so strong that I couldn’t take any more. And I sold Banda, and, oh, boy, I thought I was so rich when I got paid for Banda. And the spirit said to me, “Child, you haven’t seen anything yet.”

And he has continually blessed the works of my hands, that he worked through, and showed me that I was loved very much by him, and that because he loved me, I was to tell the world about his love, and about his goodness, and about the art. Because the prayer “Our father who art”—is A-R-T, same as art, that is considered art in the earth. So I thought about this thing, and then I realized that he had made me a little creator—all artists are little creators—like he is. He is a Creator of all things, and he will allow artists to also create. But it is for the purpose of showing love, and if an evil person creates art, it’s dangerous, same as we are when we not in love. We should always be in love with righteousness, and when we see a good piece of art, that the spirit reaches out, and says “I love you,” or “You need me,” or “I need you,” and then good things begin to happen in your life. Then we know that there is a spirit in the wood, which is a good spirit.

I didn’t know when I was young that the trees praise God. I didn’t know that, but when I got older, and got in touch, for real, with the One that had walked this long walk with me, I began to read and study the Word. And it said that the trees praise God, they clap their hands. And I was drawn into a tree, some kind of way. And I kind of see the Scriptures a little different to some people, because I see people as trees, living trees, and I see our fruits that we bear, some good and some bad. But we’re not responsible when we use the bad fruit, and the one that has the good fruit is to show good fruit to the one that has bad fruit, that they will learn to enjoy good fruit, and not hate the corrupt fruit within them. And then that way we are building a place for the Paradise to return. But as long as we hate and can’t love, as long as we judge and think were not judged, as long as we condemn and not be condemned, so we think the world will never be what God intended it to be. It is to be a Paradise, is to be peace and love, from all colors, because the colors is just the skin.

The true person lives within the temple, and if they have in the temple the righteous things, then it shines through, the candle is lit, the lantern is burning bright, and it comes out in the things that we do, which is our fruit. And to have the wood, the clay, the metal, all things that he gives me to do, and not know that I was considered an artist in the earth, I didn’t think this could happen to me, I never dreamed it could happen to me. Then met this woman at the hospital, and she saw my little people, because I’d done poems for the sick people. I would sneak away from my work, and go into the rooms with the sick people where they went to go to get well, and I would try to bring a little joy into their lives. I would tell them poems out of my heart, that God gave to me to give to them, and I would bring my wood and tell them about God’s love.

My art has been blessed and sent all over, and I’ve been seen on television, and all of this is just to say that God is God, and there is no other. He is a jealous God, and I will have no other God before him. The art is his, and I’m blessed to be the one to do it, and in it there is no evil, because in him there is no evil. He lives in me, and I in him, so anybody that purchased the work, or looks upon the work, I truly believe you are blessed. If you see it as an instrument of love, there is no evil, it is an instrument of love. And I do thank and praise God for taking it as far as it’s gone, and I know he will take it the rest of the way, even if I go to be with him, the spirit will still be in the wood, and it will tell the sweet old story of Jesus and his love.

So I just want everyone to know that the people that have listened to me and the people that know that there are some of us that come to the trash can to eat, some of us have come to the king’s table,but God has blessed me that I am able to praise him, to sit down at the Lord’s table, even if it is the trash can, and share love with the straw-poor brother in the earth. I’ll just sit at the king’s table and tell him I know a king bigger than he, that owns his kingdom and him too, and the art is a symbol of the same God that I’m speaking of, my art.

I think of art as being like a puzzle. There are so many pieces to be placed and if they’re placed in the right way, one day we will see the results of what art is really about, and we will know that we haven’t been let down by being small creators labeled as artists. I guess I should have a lot more to say right now, but I only say what the spirit allows me to, and this is it, this is what he wanted me to do. Thank you for being patient with me, because anybody that doesn’t do art, or poems, or talk through the spirit, cannot understand that you can’t do this just when you want to, you have to do it when he allows you to—the work, the speeches, and the talking about your-self. So I hope this will be a help to whoever uses it, to benefit the work that has Bessie Harvey’s name on it, and God bless you.


This material is derived from an interview conducted in 1994 by Jenifer P. Borum.