Jesse "Outlaw" Howard, Sorehead Hill

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About the Artist/Site

Jesse Howard lived most of his life in Fulton, Missouri, and was known for the large environment of painted signs he created there. His signs bore traces of his varied life experiences, including interpretations of biblical verse, commentary on local and national politicians, and his low opinion of vandals who stole his signs.

In the late 1930s, Fulton hosted an annual exhibition of steam engines and antique farm machinery. Howard worked part-time at this event, and after seeing the crowds, decided he would create his own display. His plan was to make something that would encourage viewers to stop and learn about the Scriptures. At first he painted and erected signs on his property that focused solely on biblical events.

Reaction to Howard’s display was negative, however, and often combative: vandals stole or defaced the signs, rumors and lies about Howard were circulated in his community, and thieves stole cattle and sheep from his property. Gradually Howard’s hand-painted messages began to change, from biblical instruction to personal protest.

In the early 1950s, after a fire of undetermined origin began on Howard’s land, and both the local fire department and forest rangers failed to arrive, Howard renamed his 20-acre property “Hell’s Twenty Acres” to memorialize the episode. Fortunately, Howard’s neighbors had helped him fight the blaze.

Howard’s sign painting increased, and vandalism increased, too, along with bitter personal attacks. But local newspaper reporters, and artists and art historians at nearby universities—and beyond—were also taking notice. They offered approval and the opportunity for wider audiences. By 1968, Howard’s signs would be featured in Gregg Blasdel’s influential Art in America essay on art environments in the United States, and later, in exhibits at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and at the Philadelphia College of Art. In 1977, the Kansas City Art Institute celebrated Howard’s artistry and his undaunted commitment to free speech. They invited Howard to speak with students and to show his work during a celebration of “Jesse Howard Day.”

When Howard died in 1983, his signs were sold off to private collectors. Today, nothing is left of the original environment.

~John Foster

SPACES Archives Holdings

1 folder: clippings, correspondence, pamphlets, images

Related Documents

Jesse Howard Bibliography

Postcard to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Starr Sutherland, 6/26/1986

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Starr Sutherland

Note to “get credit” for Jesse Howard, 11/18/1983

Letter to Maude Howard from SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 12/4/1983

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia, 9/30/1983

Letter to Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia from SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 11/7/1983

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia, 10/11/1983

Handwritten inventory list for Kansas City Art Institute exhibition for Jesse Howard, 2/10/1984

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Willem Volkersz, KS City Art Institute, 11/1/1983

Letter to Claudia Daugherty, MO Arts Council from Willem Volkersz, Kansas City Art Institute, 11/1/1983

Inventory list for Jesse Howard exhibition at U of MO-Columbia, c. 1983

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia, 11/21/1983

Postcard to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia, 11/21/1983

Letter to Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia from SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 2/9/1987

Letter to SPACES/Seymour Rosen from Howard Wight Marshall, U of MO-Columbia, 2/26/1987

Flyer for “Folk Art or Idiosyncracy?” lecture, 9/26/1983

Timeline of Jesse Howard’s life

Letter to MO Arts Council from SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 11/9/1983

Letter to Rick Simoncelli, MO Arts Council from Howard W. Marshall, U of MO-Columbia, 11/1/1983

Letter to Friends from SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 11/2/1983

Letter from SPACES/Seymour Rosen, 11/1/1983

Draft of letter to request letter of support for Jesse Howard

List of letter recipients for Jesse Howard letter

Map and site information

Not Exact Address
West Fulton, Missouri, United States
Latitude/Longitude: 38.847371 / -91.94798


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