Marcie Wallace giggles and it cracks up everyone in the room. “I love that man,” she says as we look at a drawing of Steve Harvey. And the image is unmistakably Harvey: The drawing highlights the versatile comic’s toothy smile and singular sartorial sense. In this instance, a chartreuse suit.
The artist is leafing through a huge stack of her drawings. It’s early afternoon at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (CCGJ) and she’s talking about the path that brought her to art. It’s been a long, hard trail, with setbacks and disappointments, but she emphasizes one point above the rest, “Now, I want to surround myself with positive people.”
To say that art changes lives is the kind of rhetoric that for the uninitiated can border on hyperbole. But for Wallace, it’s true. She started drawing in 2013 and has gone from pinning her work to her clothing and walking around Downtown, to selling it to fellow parishioners at First Timothy Baptist Church, to showing her work at First Wednesday Art Walk and now, working on a limited-edition run of a postcard book. “I wasn’t believing in myself and now I do,” she said when asked what changed. “Anyone can walk out in faith and do whatever they want ... . You are put on Earth to do your job, not for yourself, but for Him.”
Wallace’s pieces embody many of the concerns of our day, from the search for the divine to the search for happiness. “I’m doing it for Him and I am doing it for myself, because it makes me feel good, inside,” she says.
Wallace often deploys humor and absurdity, married to larger concerns of her own including Christianity, cleanliness, the strength of women and her personal environment—which ranges from fanciful lamps to images taken from the news.
Stylistically and ideologically, Wallace’s works fall within the folk/outsider/self-taught framework. Her drawings feature a flattened perspective, stacked imagery, simplified human and animal forms, and text—often Biblical quotes—but sometimes “just things I think up,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. These works share aesthetic sympathy with those of artists like Howard Finster and James Edward Deeds Jr.; who shared visual commonalities with medieval art—including areas of extreme detail and stylization, with occasional swaths of unadorned space.
In medieval art, there is a sense of simplicity interlaced to vast, unknowable, almost magical machinations. Those aspects might be part of what makes outsider/folk art so compelling—to imagine that, in addition to the artist who's physically compelled to make these works, there’s some sort of tether, either sacred or observational, that cleaves that artist to a more meaningful world than the one the rest of us inhabit.
Robin Jensen, a University of Notre Dame theology department professor, voiced this idea to the National Catholic Reporter, “We long for the spiritual, I think, even if we don’t know exactly what that means, and even if we have rejected organized religion, especially Christianity.”
There’s a repetition of themes and visual cues which can become a kind of talismanic touchstone for the viewer.
In Wallace’s work, depictions of angels and demons are often accompanied with passages from the Bible. The devils she draws run the gamut from the absurd to the deeply malicious. Their presence amid so much overwhelmingly positive and quirky imagery offers a clue into how Wallace frames her spiritual journey and how she often thinks about the challenges she’s faced: as anthropomorphic problems.
This is not to say that Wallace is a religious artist exclusively, though those themes are present, (and sometimes in surprising ways) in the works. In one piece (full disclosure: I purchased it), a hula girl kneels in prayer at the lower right edge of the page, while varied texts exhort the viewer to “wash yourself clean for the Lord.”
Another image, with the words “Long Neck Boss Man” written across the top of the paper, features a male figure dressed in a yellow-and-green smock, a tie and blue shoes, his long-arced neck emanating up from the page. Wallace has said she doesn’t want any man to control her; it’s an amusing leap to imagine this figure as a constant man-splaining micromanager whose neck is stretched out from too much peering over employees’ shoulders.
For Patrick Fisher, CCGJ's community and collaboration manager, Wallace’s work is especially compelling, because of “its innocence and humor.” In his role at the Council, Fisher has worked closely with Wallace, helping her plot a path forward with her art. “One of the things we do is professional artist development,” he explains, “that takes many forms.”
Of their first meeting in the fall of 2017, he says, “I can’t help but reflect fondly, I’d mentioned that our offices are in the same building as the symphony, and I think it was a big deal for Marcie. She’s a very stylish woman and she came with gloves up to her elbow and very put together for a 12 o’clock meeting.”
Her work resonated with Fisher because of the content, and because of her explorations of themes and ideas; she dates each work, which helps create a timeline of progress. Fisher noted that in addition to her themes involving religion and pop culture, Wallace has gone through other phases, focusing on cowboys, Native Americans and modes of transportation.
In developing a plan of action with her, one of the first things Fisher did was to suggest that she stop pinning her artworks to her jacket (though he's quick to praise her ingenuity), in order to preserve the integrity of the pieces. That the art world can seem impenetrable is not new information. However, it does raise the question of how to get noticed when the people and places one finds most interesting seem to inhabit a different realm. “I didn’t want to define her goals for her; I wanted to learn what she wanted out of being an artist. And more than anything, she wants to uplift and inspire others through her artwork. It never was really about selling ‘X’ amount or exhibiting anywhere; it was really just about getting her artwork in front of people and inspiring them.”
Before she started drawing, Wallace says that sometimes she’d sit at Chamblin’s Uptown every Friday “listening to positive people talk about what they do and how they do it.” One of the things she learned from that exercise was that most people have some kind of help along the way, so she reached out to the CCGJ, and that’s how she and Fisher met. He recalls that when she arrived for their first meeting, he’d expected her to bring just a few drawings. She had “hundreds.”
Since then, Fisher has helped Wallace begin to navigate the local art scene. He’s introduced her to other local artists (many of whom enthusiastically responded by purchasing her work); helped facilitate a space during the March First Wednesday Art Walk; she displayed artwork along with Clay Doran, Avant Music, Hurley Winkler and Aysha Miskin. Fisher has documented much of her work and helped design her website. “I like her so much as a person, I want to see her succeed.”
Winkler, a local writer, recalls meeting Wallace. “When I was introduced to Marcie at Art Walk back in February, she said, ‘Hi, I’m Marcie. Come look at my drawings!’ She presents her work with confidence, which is something many artists lack. It’s refreshing to see.”
Winkler also made a “good company” comparison to Finster, “It’s clear that Wallace allows her own spirituality to move through her when she draws. I love when the impetus for a piece of visual art is put in the spotlight that way.”
Marcie Wallace has a daily routine. “I get up in the morning and start from in the morning [and work] until night,” she says. She starts drawing and, on days she’s not attending a GED class at Florida State College at Jacksonville, she doesn’t really stop for about eight hours. She sits at the kitchen table with colored pencils on the floor around her so she can see the colors, and draws. “I sit and think what to put down, and I go from there. I just go with the flow.”
Wallace often pairs seemingly disparate elements that hint at a mysterious narrative. When asked about it, she laughs and explains that she plays a kind of “what if?” game. “I say how about this here: I just make this snake with the dog ... and I just draw it.”
Considering the dog paired with the snake, symbolically it's an interesting duo. From a Western art historical—that is to say, Biblically influenced—perspective, dogs represent fidelity; snakes represent chaos, evil and knowledge. So though Wallace does not put a fine point on that juxtaposition of faithfulness and trickery, it's reasonable to ponder it. “There is a lot of depth to the work she is creating, and a lot of it is the manifestation of her relationship with a higher being,” notes Fisher.
Before she began drawing, Wallace experimented with design, making handmade purses. When asked about those objects now, she demurs with a laugh, not wanting to talk about them. But it's that creative spark realized that has, with help from faith, transformed Wallace’s life.
Born into a family of 10, Wallace hints at an unhappy childhood marked by limited resources and limited love. “My daddy is nasty, he wasn’t an example for nobody in that house.” Recounting this memory, her eyes fill with tears; the pain she felt in the Gainesville home where she and her family lived decades ago is palpable.
She left home as soon as she could. “I left when I was 16, when I met my first boyfriend. I told my momma, ‘I don’t wanna live in this house no more, I don’t wanna be there no more.’” On her own, Wallace struggled to make her way in a world for which she wasn’t prepared. “We couldn’t go anywhere, didn’t know what life was. I didn’t have nobody tell me how to dress myself, how to read, how to be a woman. I taught my own self how to be a woman.”
A move to Miami brought a change of scenery, but for a woman who was in many ways still learning and developing, the move also brought heartache and heartbreak. Still, she says, she “was out there in the world.”
In Miami, Wallace shared her home with people who abused her generous nature. “I have children to take care of and I love myself and I won’t let anyone take advantage of me.” Finally she said to her lackluster partner, “You get out of my house, you get out of my life, and I don’t want to see you. But I forgive you for what you’ve done to me.”
She says she left Miami because of a warning she received from God in the form of a premonition. “I smelled something and it smelled like death.”
That was 2010—though for a time, she moved back and forth between Jacksonville and Miami, because of a new relationship. But Miami wasn’t good for her; she says she felt there was a malevolent spirit that inhabited the house where she lived.
Her life in in South Florida ended when she saw her boyfriend, who was lying in bed, transformed into a devil, complete with a single horn on his head. “This ain’t right, I can’t live like this,” she recalls with a laugh.
Later on, with the demonic vision still fresh in her head, a stranger selling bread on the street told her she needed to “move back home, because where you are now, The Enemy is always going to attack you. You’re always going to be sad, you’re always going to be worried, things aren’t going to work out for you because you have seen the devil. The Enemy is heavy in that house and you can’t do nothing about it.”
In 2013 she moved back to Northeast Florida for good. Soon after, she began going to First Timothy Baptist and began making things. Of her first time in church, Wallace said, “You feel lifted inside, you feel like God is with you and He can take you places. I found my inner self [that day].”
Asked what compelled her to start drawing, she says, “I was sitting there looking at the man on TV painting [Bob Ross], so I said, 'What if I can draw like that?'” That same day, she went to Walmart to get materials. At first, she says, it was hard and the work was ugly. But slowly, “it came up.”
“First I had started doing purses, and I went to church and I had three or four purses for sale and I went to church and sold one of them … then later down the line after that, I went to drawing,” she recalls. “I start drawing and people say ‘take your drawing out there, let people see it … let them buy it.’ I thought, ‘for real?’ and the lady at church told me to go to the library … but nobody me to do it. So I waited because God said ‘wait.’”
Wallace didn’t wait long, however, because she wanted to get her work in front of people. “I waited on the Lord. He pulled me through and helped me to draw. I was drawing church words to put on my back and walk around to let people see it.” She pinned her work to her clothing and walked around Downtown, selling her drawings for a few dollars each. That’s what she was doing when she reached out to the Cultural Council, at the suggestion of a Chamblin’s patron.
Today, Wallace is working with Fisher on a postcard book project. She says that it’s hard because she wants to make all new work.
Fisher is excited about the project, too, noting, “Talking to Marcie, it’s never about it’s about this thing she’s been called to do.”
The book is being produced locally by Knopf & Sons Bindery; only 25 will be available at the end of June or the beginning of July.
Talking to Wallace about her art and her struggles, one thing is very clear: Though she has endured an uphill climb, she knows how to persevere. She knows know to transform her life for the better. Marcie is 50 years old now, with three children and three grandchildren; these days, she feels like she loves herself and is proving herself to herself. “I love the drawings I do, and I think I do marvelous.”