Bessie Harvey was born Bessie Ruth White on October 11, 1929 to Homer and Rosa Mae White of Dallas, Georgia. She was the seventh of thirteen children. Harvey’s father died while she was very young, and with only a fourth grade education she had to drop out of school and find work to help support her family.
At the young age of 14 she married Charles Harvey of Buena Vista, Georgia. She moved to east Tennessee in the late 1940’s. After years of abuse from her husband, she moved to Alcoa, Tennessee and stayed with a cousin until she could find a place of her own. At this time Harvey had five children and times were very hard. She worked in private homes as a domestic for many years. After her divorce from Charles she met Cleve Jackson. They had a happy life resulting in the birth of six children. After almost twenty years, the relationship failed. Again, Harvey found herself the sole provider for her family.
Being the spiritual person she was, Harvey relied heavily on God to see her through the rough times. She remarried in the mid 1970’s to Carl Henry of Rockford, Tennessee. He helped some, but times were still hard with all the children who were still at home during their marriage.
Harvey often talked to the trees and the grass. She loved nature. She said the trees were praising God when she would see them swaying back and forth. She wrote poetry and created art as a hobby. Not thinking of it as art, but as a stress reliever. Shortly after the death of her mother in 1974, she began working more with wood, metal, and paint. She also started writing more poetry as well as short stories.
Harvey went to work at Blount Memorial Hospital as a domestic from 1977 to 1982. She wrote poems and took some of her creations to the hospital to share with the terminally ill patients to help cheer them up. She was recognized at Blount Memorial Hospital after winning a pumpkin decorating contest in 1980. The hospital’s newsletter at the time read, “The winning design was the brainchild of Bessie Harvey”. Later she sold her first piece through the hospital. Judy Higdon, who lived in Blount County at the time, saw a piece of Harvey’s work that she brought to show Higdon’s father who was a patient. Being impressed with what she saw, she asked if she could come to Harvey’s home to take pictures of some of her work and make slides. She sent slides to various galleries in the US.
After a serious accident on the job, Harvey had to go on disability to support her family. Sometime after the accident she was finally recognized. Today, Bessie Harvey has art in museums, galleries, and universities all over the world, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Whitney Museum in New York; also in countries such as Japan, Germany and Australia.
She was chosen to model and dedicate the statue of Polly Tool, an emancipated slave, who saved Blount County court house records from destruction during the Civil War. The sculpture was done by Joyce McCrosky and stands in the lobby of the Blount County Court House. The unveiling and dedication took place on July 4, 1994 as the kickoff of Blount’s Bicentennial celebration.
In late July of that same year, Harvey received notification from the Tennessee Arts Commission that she had been chosen to receive the Governor’s award, Tennessee’s highest artistic honor. The awards ceremony was scheduled for September 29, 1994. Unfortunately, on August 12, 1994, Bessie Harvey passed away in her sleep at her home at the age of 64.
Since Harvey’s death, the Knoxville Museum of Art has featured a show of her work titled “Awakening The Spirits”. It was said to be the most significant show in the history of the museum. Pieces of her work were chosen to be a part of the Whitney Museum’s traveling Biennial Exhibition of 1995. The street where she lived early on, and did most of her work, was renamed from McMillan St. to Bessie Harvey Ave. Her birthday, October 11, was proclaimed as Bessie Harvey Day by the City of Alcoa Commission. Each year there is a celebration on or near that date in her honor. The building of a memorial is currently in motion for the late artist and will be located on Bessie Harvey Avenue, where she once lived and where her home church, St John Missionary Baptist Church, still stands.