Naomi Polk, artist, daughter of Woodson and Josephine (Walton) Howard, was born in 1892 in the Fourth Ward of Houston. Her maternal grandmother was brought from Africa as a slave, and she was part Cherokee Indian from her father's side of the family. She grew up in the house deeded to the family after emancipation by their former owner. As a child she attended Gregory School and, for a brief period, the Booker T. Washington School; she left school in the sixth grade to care for the children of her older sisters. Naomi was baptized in Houston's oldest black church, the Antioch Baptist Church. In the early 1920s she married Bill Myers. After his death she married Robert Polk, who was shot to death in 1933 by a Dallas police officer. Naomi was left to raise the couple's three children on her own. To support her family, she relied on a combination of cottage industries. She produced secret-formula insecticides that she sold from her home to her neighbors in the Fourth Ward; she ordered cosmetics for black women in bulk from a northern company and sold them in her neighborhood; and she painted cans discarded from a nearby dairy, filled them with plant cuttings, and sold them from a children's wagon in the Montrose district of Houston.
Naomi Polk kept notebooks in which she chronicled her life in the Fourth Ward and wrote poems that reflected her experiences and poignant observations of life. As a self-taught artist, she mixed her own paints and recycled materials to make her art. Materials such as discarded window shades, scraps of wood and cardboard, and even ceiling tiles became the "canvases" on which she painted her inner visions. She turned down store-bought art supplies offered by her daughter, as she preferred "making something out of nothing." Often her work revealed her deep Christian devotion, and she made numerous paintings of Christ and illustrations of Bible stories and events such as river baptisms. She painted several small pictures of the crucified Christ that she labeled The Stick Doll. These simple paintings were inspired by a childhood toy made for the artist by her mother, who fashioned dolls of sticks lashed together with twine, using rope for hair. As a child, Naomi treasured these stick dolls, much as she came to treasure Christianity in her later years. The similarity between the figure of the crucified Christ and the cross-like stick dolls allowed Polk to connect the significance of her dolls with that of her religion and inspired intimate and colorful paintings. Polk's painting Those Reaching Hands depicts African villagers engaged in their daily routines. She explained that the title referred to the greedy hands of Whites, which were about to reach across the Atlantic ocean to steal the unsuspecting Africans into slavery.
In the 1950s the family homestead in the Fourth Ward was purchased by the Phoenix Dairy, and Naomi Polk moved to the first all-black subdivision in Houston, Acres Homes. In 1961 her house burned, and her entire body of poems and paintings was lost in the fire. She spent the rest of her life rewriting and repainting what had been lost. In the mid-1960s, at around the age of seventy-five, Naomi was married for the third time, to a neighborhood preacher. But both parties refused to leave their homes, and after several months the marriage ended in divorce. Toward the end of her life, Polk's sense of isolation and increasing awareness of her mortality began to influence her art, resulting in some of her strongest work. In her Lonesome Road series she expressed her view of herself as a lonely traveler on the long and narrow passage of life. The small paintings, washed in watercolor with magic marker added in bold, rapid strokes, depict roads devoid of figures that continue beyond the border of the picture. Inspired by one of the artist's favorite gospel songs, the paintings instruct the viewer to "Look down that long, lonesome road before you travel on."
At the time of her death in Houston on May 1, 1984, Polk's art had not been seen by the public, and she did not live to experience the recognition that it has since received. Exhibitions of her work include Art and Culture: The Fourth Ward, at Diverse Works Gallery, Houston, in 1986; the traveling exhibition Handmade and Heartfelt: Folk Art in Texas, organized by Laguna Gloria Art Museum and Texas Folklife Resources in 1987; a show at GVG Gallery, Houston, in 1988; and Naive Women, at Leslie Muth Gallery, Houston, in 1988. Her self-portrait, inscribed "Now where do I go from here?," inspired the title of the exhibition Now Where Do I Go from Here: Houston Women (A History of Where They've Been and a Look at Where They're Going from Here), Houston, 1988, and the painting was reproduced for the poster of the exhibition. Naomi Polk was one of six artists in the traveling exhibition Black History/Black Vision: The Visionary Image in Texas, organized by the University of Texas Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery in 1989.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.