Essie Ward was a self-taught painter from Arkansas. Ralph Rinzler purchased a number of her paintings during fieldwork for the 1970 Folklife Festival’s Arkansas program. They later came to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage after his death and several now hang in the conference room.
“Grandma Moses” of the Ozarks
Ward (1902–1981) had always been interested in art but lived the life of a farmer and mother of seven until an illness in her late fifties left her unable to do heavy work. Around that time, a friend asked her to create a painting from a photograph for him. The scene was of a woman with a churn in the doorway of a cabin. From there, she was inspired to create a series of paintings, fifty-five in all, that highlighted country Ozark life. The series often featured a married couple, Miranda and Hezzakiah, usually shown engaged in farm work. Curator Susan Young of the Shiloh Museum pointed out that in some cases Ward painted Miranda doing the work while Hezzakiah was lounging around.
Folklife Festival founder Ralph Rinzler was no stranger to Arkansas and traveled there to collect folksongs in the 1960s. According to Young, one time when Rinzler was visiting folk singer Jimmy Driftwood at his home, he spotted one of Ward’s paintings and was enamored with it. He asked to meet her, and Driftwood took him for a visit. He then ordered some paintings. The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections contains a handwritten receipt from Ward dated 1965 regarding an order of four paintings. The three currently on display in the Center’s conference room are dated 1967 and all feature Hezzakiah and Miranda. Ward had many customers who ordered handmade paintings. Each one, including “Chitlin’ Time,” bore her stamp: a pair of white rabbit ears somewhere in the painting.
—Jeff Place, senior archivist and curator