Born in 1904 in southern Mississippi, Mary Tillman Smith was one of thirteen children. From an early age, Mary had a severe hearing impairment that deeply affected her speech. Due to this, she never made it past fifth grade but considered this quite an accomplishment given her deafness and the lack of disability programs available to her. In spite of this, her siblings realized that Mary was exceptionally bright, and she later found a creative outlet in drawing.
In her early teens, Mary left home and was briefly married to a man named Gus Williams. After discovering he lied to her at one time, she left him and went to work for a white family in a nearby town called Wesson. After working in Wesson for several years, she met and married a sharecropper named John Smith though that marriage ended abruptly as well. In her thirties, Mary moved to the town of Hazlehurst, the largest town in the area.
Upon moving to Hazlehurst, Smith again worked as a domestic and had her only child, Sheridan L. "Jay Bird" Major, in 1941. Though she never married the father, he built her a home, a wood bungalow on a one-acre lot. After discovering a nearby dump which contained corrugated tin, Smith began to bring the discarded materials home to turn them into art. Over time, her yard became a personal exhibition space for her sculptures and paintings. Smith's faith was ever-present in her work, and religious iconography played a major role in her artwork. Not only that, but due to her impairment, her artwork represented a means of communication with the world around her, something that proved immensely valuable.
At the age of ninety-one, Smith passed away in 1995. Though she faced numerous challenges throughout her life, Smith became a major outsider artist and one of the most celebrated folk artists in the South. Her work continues to be exhibited across the United States.