Like many self-taught artists of the twentieth century, Georgia-born Emily Mattie Lou O’Kelley came to painting later in life. At nearly fifty years of age, she started producing lively images of farm life, animals, friends, family, and rural Southern landscapes, largely sourced from childhood memories. O’Kelley’s paintings render everyday scenes in a vivid palette, often positioning technicolor blues, greens, and purples alongside pastel pinks and oranges. While she composed some landscapes entirely through small dots of paint, her portraits and still life paintings—with their flattened forms and strong sense of technical control—recall the work of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century itinerant limner painters, such as George Esten Cooke.

When asked about her upbringing, O’Kelley once described herself as a “late bloomer.” True to this statement, she spent her childhood and early adult life on her parents’ farm in rural Banks County, located in the northeast corner of Georgia. The seventh of eight children born to an extended family of farmers, Mattie left school after the ninth grade to help her brothers, sisters, and father tend to the land and feed the livestock. While the rest of her siblings eventually relocated in search of greater opportunities, O’Kelley and her newly-widowed mother moved into a small house in the nearby town of Maysville. O’Kelley would spend the next twenty years working full time and serving as a caretaker for her ailing mother. She found a formal occupation at the age of thirty-five in a manufacturing plant and later worked as a waitress, yarn maker, and seamstress. Laboring long hours for a wage far below the national poverty line, she kept to herself, recalling those years as a great hardship. Following the death of her mother in 1955 and living alone for the first time in her life, the now sixty-year-old O’Kelley began casually translating her memories into painting and writing around 1968. She said, “I had always wanted to paint. Now I had the time.”

Although close friends and confidants would sometimes describe O’Kelley as shy and reserved, the artist was a fierce advocate for her creative work. In 1975, she decided to pursue a wider audience. With a painting in tow, she traveled by bus to the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, where she introduced herself to the museum’s then-director Gudmund Vigtel. Immediately impressed by the artist’s bountiful still life—set upon a vibrant turquoise-and-white checkered tablecloth—Vigtel purchased the painting for the High Museum’s permanent collection. Spring Vegetable Scene (1968) became O’Kelley’s first official museum acquisition, launching her into the next phase of what would be an illustrious and lucrative career. Shortly after, the collector Robert Bishop (who eventually served as the director of what is now the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan) saw Spring Vegetable Scene while giving a lecture at the High Museum. Bishop soon became O’Kelley’s official agent, promoting her paintings to institutions and galleries nationwide. In 1976, she was honored with the Governor’s Award for the Arts for the state of Georgia. Later that same decade, O’Kelley briefly resided in both New York City and West Palm Beach, Florida, but ultimately returned to her home state, settling in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

The highly-stylized decorative aspects of O’Kelley’s imagery have often been linked to commercial American art, including Christmas cards, fruitcake tins, and the popular nineteenth-century lithographs produced by Currier and Ives. However, when considered in the context of O’Kelley’s rural upbringing, these visual markers also indicate a deep connection to her family home. Daily chores ranged from canning vegetables to making quilts, and the O’Kelley family often completed these tasks together. O’Kelley is sometimes categorized as a “memory” painter, as imaginative recollections of her childhood and adolescence serve as inspiration for her subject matter. While these idealized panoramas—through their symmetry, bright colors, and neat patterning—convey order and enchantment, her family’s circumstances were not always idyllic.

Over the following years, O’Kelley continued to paint, but also authored numerous books and poems that drew on her early childhood experiences. In the 1980s, she published A Winter Place, From the Hills of Georgia: An Autobiography in Paintings and Circus. Her work also appeared on the cover of Life magazine in June of 1980 alongside the headline “The Flowering of U.S. Folk Art.” Her work is held in the American Folk Art Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.