| Birmingham -- Gail Trechsel says it was a traveling Corcoran Museum exhibit of African-American folk art in the early 1980s that really got things going again ï¿½ and Alabama played a key role.
ï¿½I certainly donï¿½t think the south has a monopoly on folk art, but there is a large, large number of people working today and whether thatï¿½s from the fact that we still have some more isolated environmentsï¿½ whether there is that religious vein here that is a strong, strong veinï¿½ whether thereï¿½s a greater tolerance for people who are a little eccentric. And we have that strong streak in literature, perhaps we applaud that in visual arts as well ï¿½ I donï¿½t know. But Alabama is the home of so many of these artists. I mean weï¿½re standing in front of a Bill Traylor. Certainly one of the most ï¿½ if not the most important of all the self-taught artists. Most heralded figures.ï¿½
Traylor was born a slave in 1854 on a Benton, Alabama plantation. He came to art late in life and had a very short career before his death in 1949.
ï¿½Moved to Montgomery in the late 30s and lived in the back of a funeral parlor for most of his time there and began just drawing on scraps of cardboard, abandoned paper, boxes, whatever he could find. Using pencil, colored pencil, charcoal pencil, in general. Straight edge to help him with some of his figures. He did some of the most creative, distinctive drawings ever of any artist, anytime, anyplace.ï¿½
Traylorï¿½s piece in this exhibit features a man whoï¿½s missing half of his leg. Traylor himself lost a leg to diabetes. Itï¿½s a common thread. Many folk artists, including Alabamaï¿½s Mose Tolliver, found their creative voices after injuries, illness, or life challenging events.
ï¿½He grew up in the Montgomery area and he was working for a furniture factory, I think in the early 60s, when a load of marble fell on his feet and crushed his feet. And heï¿½s been confined to a walker or crutches since then. His former employer encouraged him to start painting and even take some painting classes. Toliver decided he didnï¿½t need the classes, but he liked the idea of painting. And he started painting. His early works were birds and flowers."
"Heï¿½s also famous for the woman that you see here in the center of the panel ï¿½ ï¿½Woman on a Scooterï¿½. These pretty phallic-looking drawings of women with their legs up over their heads that he would always laugh about, call his Moose Women, or as I said, ï¿½Woman on a Scooter.ï¿½ Heï¿½d kind of giggle about them. Always paints his own borders, like a frame, and usually adheres a little aluminum ring ï¿½ soda can, beer can top ï¿½ as hangers as well.ï¿½
ï¿½Mose Tï¿½ is known for his use of color ï¿½ but what might surprise some museum goers is that the paint is house paint. Tolliver uses whateverï¿½s on handï¿½ as does Birmingham native Lonnie Holley -- part of a younger generation of more urban folk artists.
ï¿½People initially met Lonnie through his sandstone. And he began carving. He carved a tombstone for his sisterï¿½s child who had died ï¿½ and found that it was a medium that allowed him to express himself in a variety of ways. And then he went into painting. And you see this painting we have over here of a real Christ-like figure. Itï¿½s called ï¿½Fading Like the Seasons of Time.ï¿½
An untrained eye might mistake the painting for the scribbling of a preschooler, but Gail Trechsel says a closer look reveals there's a lot more going on in this piece.
ï¿½There are some amazing drawings by children which museums are interested in. But usually ï¿½ I would say to answer that ï¿½ the topics that children are choosing for their artwork are usually not what adults are choosing for their artwork. And here we see a face that is pained. That is, I think has this tortured eye and mouth and thereï¿½s a sadnessï¿½ a thoughtfulness about oneself and the passage of time that I donï¿½t think weï¿½d find in a childrenï¿½s drawing. And I think that sometimes folk artists are called child-like, but theyï¿½re not making art from child concerns or child topics.ï¿½
Todayï¿½s folk art is not just the idyllic, rural farm scenes of Grandma Moses. It takes on tough issues ï¿½ race relations, poverty, societal ills. And society doesnï¿½t always approve ï¿½ as Lonnie Holley discovered with his sculpture garden made of found objects.
ï¿½He had about an acre near the airport in Birmingham and it was an incredible environment. People came from all over the world to see it. The airport wanted to expand. There were many people who tried to save that environment and there was another area that was found that was nearby that we hoped we could help Lonnie move to, but there was so much pressure from the neighborhood. They didnï¿½t want this person, whoï¿½s either seen as crazy or eccentric or messy or this or that or whatever it might be. This isnï¿½t easy for people and youï¿½re right, public art in general can be hard. If it doesnï¿½t make you stop and think and is arresting, then why have it?ï¿½
Holley eventually moved his garden to a larger plot in Harpersville, Alabama. Over in Summerville, Georgia, thereï¿½s a famous folk art garden built by artist Howard Finster, perhaps the best known artist in the Birmingham show. Finster, who was born in Alabama, built the worldï¿½s largest folk art church. His painting in this exhibit is smaller in scale, but Gail Trechsel says ï¿½ very grand in vision.
"This painting is on a metal table top. Two presidents that he admired greatly. Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. And they were presidents during the first and second world wars. And he saw them as men of visions. And youï¿½ll see their eyes ï¿½ eyes that have these concentric circles that are almost glowing out of the paintings to show that these two were men of vision. But in the center, between these two paintings, is this messageï¿½ ï¿½Who will be president in worlds war three? And when will it be, in the year of 2003?ï¿½ Didnï¿½t hit me until I hung this, and I was hanging it during the war with Iraq. That the image that he has painted is very close to Jimmy Carter, who had been elected just six months before or so when this painting was done. His fellow Georgian. And hereï¿½s Carter, whoï¿½s won the noble prize, here we areï¿½ You know, I thought, well maybe he really was a man of visionï¿½ Maybe he really did know something.ï¿½
Some considered Finster a visionary. Critics labeled him mercenary ï¿½ for what they saw as an insatiable commercial streak in this artist-preacher. Finster produced more than 20-thousand paintings in his lifetime. Gail Trechsel disputes the claim that Finster and other folk artists have ï¿½sold outï¿½, though she admits that commercial popularity has taken its toll.
ï¿½In the mid 80s, early 90s, there was just this frenzy of buying and I think a lot of artists were pushed unnecessarily. Their work did suffer. They became repetitive. A collector or a dealer or a curator or whomever would come in and say, ï¿½I want one just like the oneï¿½ï¿½ you know. And making demands of people that were really pretty intolerable and unfair. On the other hand, I do think a lot of these artists have benefited financially and have had a much nicer standard of living because of their commercial success.ï¿½
The exhibit of folk art, Recycled/Remade, runs through October 5th at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
~Tanya Ott, September 19, 2003