Henry Speller was born in 1939 and raised near Rolling Fork, specifically on a plantation within a small Mississippi Delta community he called “Pannabun.” Like much of the American South, Mississippi was characterized by systemic discrimination, racial violence, and limited opportunities for Black citizens during the Jim Crow era.
Life in the Delta was defined by cotton and corn fields, the chugging steamboats and echoing steam whistles, the rumbling trains, and unrelenting labor. Sharecropping was the backbreaking work, leaving little time for formal education. Working as a subsistence farmer in rural Washington County, an Illinois Central Railroad freight train would pass by his door daily. The speed and power of the train stirred a range of emotions, from awe at human ingenuity to a profound reminder of the vastness and force of the world around him. However, more often than not, Speller could be found sitting on his porch, sketching the trains as they sped towards bigger cities, promising greater economic opportunities and cultural vibrancy.
In 1939, driven by the allure of those passing trains, Speller decided to follow their path north to Memphis. He settled on Butler Avenue, a short walk from the renowned Beale Street and an equally brief walk to Front Street, where his drawings are now on view at Tops Gallery. Beale Street was a thriving hub of music and entertainment, featuring numerous clubs, juke joints, and theaters that blended various music styles, including blues, jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Through his art and music, Speller captured a world teeming with excitement, mystery, and gratification, reshaping it in his unique way. Yet, despite the bustling atmosphere of Memphis, the promise of abundant economic prosperity remained elusive for him.
Speller resorted to collecting loose lumps of coal that had fallen from passing trains, selling them for twenty cents per bucket. Despite the disappointment in his odd jobs, Speller always had music. His guitar served as a personal journal, preserving his hopes and memories, enabling him to summon them at will.
For Speller and his wife, the artist Georgia Speller, their porch became a sanctuary where they would spend their summer nights making music and drawing pictures. Despite being near Beale Street, Butler Avenue was already grappling with urban decay and neglect. Such neighborhoods, so near yet so far from the reflective buzz of nightlife, often remain hidden from those who do not reside there. Never shy in his harrowing humor, he called attention to the beauty and struggle of everyday life by pinning his drawings directly to the porch, primarily for neighbors to see.
Which brings us to the current exhibition of Speller’s drawings. Tops Gallery has been transformed into a catacomb of the grotesque. And I loved every minute of it. The exhibition comprises 13 drawings, all completed between 1983 and 1986, predominately in pencil and crayon drawings on 18 x 24 sheets of paper. There are two outliers: a lavishly colorful riverboat and an architectural study of a building devoid of angular perspective. These provide welcome interludes, showcasing Speller’s versatility and creative range. However, the majority of the exhibition consists of unflinching allegories that portray a world that promises much more than it is willing to deliver.
His fascinations, fantasies, and compulsions play out in his ability to uglify the powerful and beautiful. He transforms the forbidden into the deepest depravity. His satirical depictions often serve as comically crude responses to bourgeois posturing. Rendered unabashedly, his female subjects, who are almost always depicted as white, wear clothing that is simultaneously there and not, appearing translucent or strategically removed to reveal breasts comprised of concentric circles. Speller humorously refers to them as “Christ apples.” These monstrous, cavorting figures sport expressions of complicity in their robust, toothy grins. They almost seem to sneer at the viewer. Their sexuality becomes a performance, their ticket to transcend social boundaries. Accompanying these provocative women are blazingly amoral businessmen, often positioned alongside them, driven solely by carnal lust and nihilism.
Henry Speller was a brilliantly humorous satirist who scrutinized every facet of the freedom afforded to the white upper class of the South. These figures within his drawings serve as metaphors, representing his moral outrage at the suffering endured by the exploited individuals who built vast wealth for their employers. Speller’s drawings effectively reflect the vengeful essence of this upper class by holding up a mirror and fearlessly exposing their inhumanity.