Sorehead HillJesse ‘Outlaw’ Howard (1885-1983)
Relocated (incl. Museums)
West Fulton, MO, 65251, United States
While the site no longer exists, work by Jesse Howard is in the collections of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Nelson Atkins Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Metropolitan Art Museum, American Folk Art Museum, and more.
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.
placards and signs
SPACES Archives Holdings
1 folder: clippings, correspondence, pamphlets, images
Map & Site Information
West Fulton, MO, 65251 us
Latitude/Longitude: 38.876692 / -91.9979411
St Louis, Missouri
Overland Park, Kansas