After surviving a mining accident, Harrison Mayes, a roadside evangelist, spent much of his life creating signs like the one pictured here, made of corrugated metal and rolled asphalt with the words “GET RIGHT WITH GOD,” in the recent exhibition Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art. Yet this particular sign had a long journey before arriving at the Nasher.
Roger Manley, director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at North Carlina State University, was on his way to take photographs on Saint Helena Island for an exhibition in the late 1980s, when something on the side of N.C. Hwy. 17 caught his eye that turned out to be a sign blown down from a hurricane. Manley recognized its maker from his experiences as an outsider art curator, and put it in the back of his van. He kept it in his garage on Burch Avenue in Durham for years before including it in his The End is Near! show at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore in 1999.
Later, Manley sold the sign at the Slotin Auctions in Atlanta to help finance his stay in France, where he was working on a feature-length documentary called MANA—beyond belief. Margaret Robson, a New York collector, bought it and kept it in her second home in Santa Fe for the next 10 years. While moving from Santa Fe to Chicago, she began to gift much of her collection and talked at length to retired Center for Documentary Studies Director Tom Rankin, about where her collection was going. As fellow trustees on the American Folklife Center Board at the Library of Congress, Margaret wanted to give a work of art to Tom. She gave him a choice between three works, and since he had grown up frequently seeing Mayes’ signs on the roads of Kentucky, he chose GET RIGHT WITH GOD.
Roger Manley was happily surprised to see the beloved sign in an article about Tom’s house. But he is even more thrilled to see that the sign has come full circle, as it is displayed just two blocks away from its former home in his Burch Avenue garage.
“I hope it’s not some kind of cosmic message to get my affairs in order,” Roger Manley said, “but I’m delighted that it’s back in the South. Harrison Mayes made thousands of them, and I used to see them all the time on back roads, where they were once almost as common as kudzu patches. Now they’ve almost all vanished. Having one on display in Southern Accent is like having a relic of the true South.”
Southern Accent will travel to the Speed Art Museum, where it will be on view April 29 – August 20, 2017. The fully illustrated exhibition catalogue is available for purchase at the Nasher Museum Store.
TOP: Henry Harrison Mayes, Untitled, n.d. Corrugated metal and rolled asphalt; 51.5 x 72 inches (130.81 x 182.88 cm). Collection of Jill McCorkle and Tom Rankin. © Estate of Henry Harrison Mayes. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.