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This Day in Georgia History

July 26, 1997

Mattie Lou O’Kelley Died

Celebrated folk artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley died in Atlanta at age 89. Born March 30, 1908, in Maysville, Georgia, O’Kelley was the seventh of eight children. She grew up on the family’s 129-acre farm, which raised cotton, corn, and hay. As a girl, she learned to can vegetables, sew quilts, and do the various chores expected of children on farms. Later, she would portray scenes of her childhood in the primitive painting style for which she became nationally famous. With only a ninth-grade education, O’Kelley worked as a seamstress, school cafeteria cook, and a mill worker before being forced to retire at age 50. Four years later, she decided to take up painting as a hobby. As a self-taught artist, she began painting scenes she recalled from her childhood in Banks County. Her style was simple though full of color and detail. Five collections of her paintings were published, and one of her paintings was used on the cover of the June 1980 issue Life magazine. Perhaps her most important work is the 1983 collected series, From the Hills of Georgia: An Autobiography in Paintings. Among the paintings in this collection are “Cotton Ginning Time” and “Lillie’s Pound Supper.” Characteristic of her style, both are full of action and show scenes from rural life in Georgia as observed by a young child. American art experts have rated O’Kelley as one of this country’s major artists. As one noted authority observed: “Her art will be collected, avidly collected, respected and exhibited for as long as there is an America.”