By Rebecca Proffitt
In 2020, 50 works from Sammie L. Nicely’s personal collection were bequeathed to the Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University. These pieces have become the seed that inspires the museum to grow a special collection dedicated to the work of artists of color, particularly Black Appalachians, African Americans, and folk artists from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.
The mission of this collection is to continue the work of Nicely, who dedicated his career to advancing cultural awareness and promoting arts and arts education in his native Hamblen County, Tennessee, as well as internationally. Recognized as an extraordinary artist with a successful career, he is also remembered by friends and family as a well-traveled teacher of culture who was a champion of children, a peace-maker, and a thoughtful guru.
Nicely’s personal collection is a snapshot of post-war and contemporary art exploring Black imagery and themes representing a variety of media and forms. An active member of the arts community in the Southeast, Nicely possessed a breadth of knowledge that allowed him to collect noteworthy pieces from galleries, flea markets, and art fairs, and through trades with other artists. Representative works include sculptural pieces by Bessie Harvey, John Goslin, and Calvin Nicely; paintings and mixed media by Mose Tolliver, Stefanie Jackson, and Ernani Silva; textile works by Aundra McCoy; and a variety of African fetish objects.
In recent months, the collection has expanded to include important works by Nicely himself, including donations from Calvin Nicely, Sammie Nicely’s nephew, and Martha Ralston Alfonso, former owner of Ralston Fine Art. Contributions such as these will help the Reece Museum build a significant collection of African American art that highlights diverse Appalachian voices and perspectives. As the collection continues to grow, these works will provide opportunities for community partnerships and unique educational experiences, furthering Nicely’s goal to help our region “see the beauty in diversity.”
Sammie L. Nicely (1947-2015)
Throughout his long career, Nicely promoted arts education, raised cultural awareness, and created objects that communicated his experiences as an African American, Appalachian man. The personal and narrative meanings behind his work explored ancestral, regional, and modern lived experiences within his reality, and led many to describe him as a contemporary folk artist. In addition to works he created, Nicely was known for collecting African masks, textiles, and other decorative objects that he often included in exhibitions.
Growing up in Russellville, Tennessee, in the 1960s, Nicely was exposed to very negative images of Africa and African heritage. He attended all-Black schools for 10 years and an integrated high school for two years, then went on to graduate from Middle Tennessee State University with a B.S. in Art Education in 1976. “I went through the Black movement, finding my identity through dress and hair and learning to accept who I am,” Nicely said of his time studying at MTSU. “As an artist at a predominantly white institution, I started wondering about my roots. At that time, there were no classes offered in African art or art history, just European history, so my professor in art history suggested that I do my term paper on African art.”
Described as a “historian who loved his family,” Nicely traced his genealogical history back to his African roots. During his early career, he began exploring and connecting with African art traditions, which represented his ancestry. He was particularly drawn to the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. and became interested in the form of the mask as a source of magic and power. In looking at his collection and body of work, the mask is a prominent theme that is repeated in clay, paint, woodcarving, and found object assemblages. Nicely’s blend of African and Appalachian ancestry gave him a unique aesthetic that is at once extremely personal and universal, and that encourages the viewer to access their own ancestry, personality, and lived experience to create a communal space between viewer and artist.
“The key to understanding Sammie’s art is that…there seems to be a great deal of experimentation, as evidenced by the different categories of the work,” Earl Hooks, ceramicist and director of the Fisk University Museum, said during a solo exhibition of Nicely’s work at the museum in 1979. “This, however, does not take away from the overriding sense of unity that the body of work possesses, which is undoubtedly influenced by the artist’s immense sense of oneness.”
Contemporary Folk Artist
“I like to call myself a contemporary folk artist. Some people question that, but I like to call myself a contemporary folk artist because of how I use materials, found materials and things that are around me. When I approach my work, I don’t approach it from academics. I just do it….Crafts techniques can be repetitive, but if a person adds their own sort of technique or the way they do things, sometimes there’s feelings in it.”
– Sammie Nicely, Now and Then magazine interview, 1989
Nicely was influenced by the strong crafts tradition that exists in his Russellville community. His grandfather was a master carpenter and his father, James, could make and fix things using whatever was at hand. The yard of his childhood home, and later the Nicely Arts Center in Russellville, was filled with sculptures, found objects, and pieces of wood that James brought home for his son to carve. Nicely spoke of community members who inspired him, including Rosalee Pleass, a painter, weaver, and cornshuck doll maker; John Ray, who made split oak baskets; and the Overmountain Weavers, a community-based group that provided an example of craftspeople able to earn a living in the small, census-designated area of Russellville.
As he expanded his skills as an artist, Nicely was drawn to more traditional and ancestral ways of creating. Most of his ceramics were pit-fired, a process that has historically been used by African tribes and First Nations people. He continued developing traditional skills in the early 1980s when he enrolled in the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where he earned 22 hours of graduate credit in ceramics and drawing.
Nicely first became associated with the Reece Museum in the mid-1980s when he exhibited at the Museum and then facilitated a clay demonstration for a Family Day event. One of his masks appeared on the cover of the Fall 1989 Now and Then magazine issue exploring the theme “Appalachian Art: Folk and Fine.” He was interviewed and photographed at the Nicely Arts Center for that issue.
Nicely went on to serve as the Reece Museum's artist-in-residence during the 2014 to 2015 academic year where he curated two exhibits: “EXUBERANCE! Kids Make Art about Art” and “From an African American Perspective,” which included artworks from the collections of Jan and Sylvia Peters, Dr. Jerome Wright, and Nicely’s personal collection of African and African American art.
Categorization of Nicely’s work feels complex because so much of it occupies a liminal space between recognizable and defining characteristics. Nicely had extensive and rigorous training and meets the requirements of the label “fine artist” but self-identified as a folk artist. The context in which he created his art is crucial in understanding this distinction, and why it was an important one for him to make.
From Africa to Appalachia
“Folklorists, when they’re feeling especially succinct, define folklore as communication within small groups. So, folk art is the art produced by a community principally for other members of the community, an art that helps to express their sense of regional or ethnic identity, their values and beliefs.”
– Jane Harris Woodside, associate editor of Now and Then magazine (Vol. 6, Number 3; Fall 1989)
Nicely’s narrative art was a direct connection between his ancestral roots in Africa and his ancestral roots in Appalachia. In 1986, he and JoVita Wells founded the From Africa to Appalachia Foundation to explore this cultural connection, and to promote and create organized celebrations around this theme. This type of holistic arts programming, based in shared community values and cultural affirmation, was at the heart of Nicely’s mission. This emphasis on local meaning combined with his oft-stated goal of communicating while leaving space for personal interpretation, solidifies his identification as a folk artist. Nicely’s work — and his collection — challenges commonly held beliefs about art and artists living and working in Appalachia.
As the Reece Museum continues to collect works made by Nicely and other artists of color, unique educational opportunities will become available as materials and exhibitions are developed. A catalog of the original 50 works from Nicely’s personal collection is available at the Reece Museum website, https://www.etsu.edu/reece, and an online collections portal is being developed to make all pieces in the Sammie L. Nicely Collection accessible digitally.
Through research into the existing collection and the addition of recent donations, the Sammie L. Nicely Collection includes 70 pieces, with the possibility that the collection will grow exponentially. Community support will help develop the museum’s capacity to collect and store this valuable educational and cultural resource.
The B. Carroll Reece Museum is a unit of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services, housed in the Department of Appalachian Studies. The Museum is located on the campus of East Tennessee State University and is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, please visit www.etsu.edu/reece or phone (423) 439-4392.
Rebecca Proffitt is interim director of the B. Carroll Reece Museum. She is a folklorist and an award-winning educator and curator with more than two decades of experience in teaching and researching expressive culture. She began focusing on Arts Integration through work with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and then returned to ETSU to earn an MA in Appalachian Studies in 2017.