January 27, 2011

Huntsville’s largest art venue, The Flying Monkey is located in a large warehouse near downtown. This facility is home to dozens of local artist. The warehouse serves as a community arts center, not limiting itself to visual arts. Each floor of the building is equipped with spacious studio spaces. 

As a first time visitor, my initial response to the space was “What? This place is huge.” Having much experience with art in the Southeast, this venue makes Huntsville a hot spot for Southern art. 

(Source: flyingmonkeyarts.org)

January 27, 2011

The Switch House in Huntsville, AL. All crafts and other items are made from organic materials. 

January 20, 2011

Johnny Eckerd

                Gee’s Bend, Alabama is the name of an actual physical landmark, a dramatic bend in the Alabama River that surrounds the town of Boykin on three sides. Geographically speaking, this area is Southwest of Selma by about 30 miles in an area of Alabama known as the “Black Belt”, which refers to the black topsoil and the fact that the majority of residents here are descendants of freed slaves who stayed on their land. This area is among the poorest in the state, and for its lack of a true voting pool, it receives fairly little in the way of aid or government money. Since there are no bridges, the only way to cross the Alabama River is by driving onto the Gee’s Bend ferry.

                Coty’s mom had been to Gee’s Bend before and told us that to see the quilts we would need to take that ferry. We showed up for the 4:00 ferry at 3, and it turned out to be the 4:30 ferry. This wasn’t a problem because this was one of the most beautiful places that I had ever seen and we were more than happy to wait. Once the ferry arrived and we drove our car onto it, the ferry operators had a different story to tell about where to find the quilts. Turns out that all of the quilts are in Boykin and crossing the river would have left us either to wait until the next day for the ferry back, unless we drove hours out of the way to get back home. The area is essentially too poor to merit building a bridge or funding any large-scale public works. Shout-out to the Gee’s Bend ferry operators for saving us that misfortune. They told us where to find the quilts and we thanked them and drove off…disaster averted.

                We reached the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to find another problem on our hands: it was closed. Though there were about 20 cars in the parking lot, there wasn’t a soul anywhere around us. We had spent so much time waiting for, getting on, and getting off the ferry that we seemed to have missed the open hours of the Collective. Coty and I were looking for the mysterious owners of the cars in the parking lot when someone yelled to us from a car on the road — “Are y’all trying to see the quilts?” Oh, WERE we trying. The woman turned out to be Nancy Pettway, one of Gee’s Bend’s quilters who really just happened to be driving by. We talked to her about our project and the ferry issues and she was more than happy to open up the doors of the Quilters Collective for us. Camping the night in Gee’s Bend was no longer needed (and for that Coty and I owe Nancy a lot!). It turned out that all of those cars had met there to go to a funeral in a group bus, so that would have been a dead end.

                This paragraph is essentially a side note, but an interesting and important one. The name Pettway didn’t mean anything to me before coming to the Quilters Collective, but then I started to notice that almost every picture on the wall was of a Pettway, and that most of the quilts were made by Pettways as well. With some research I found out that the plantation at Gee’s Bend was given to Mark Pettway in 1845 to settle a $29,000 debt, and that Mark brought 100 slaves with him when he moved there from North Carolina. Nancy and the rest of the Pettways are all descendants of these slaves and still live in the area. For an idea, see the list of the Gee’s Bend quilters — 18 out of 40 on the Quilters’ website are Pettways.

                Nancy told me that she has been quilting since she was a young girl. Though most of the Gee’s Bend quilters (and quilters in general, she told me) learn from their mothers, Nancy is self-taught. In fact, Nancy did not grow up in Gee’s Bend, but moved there to pursue quilting as an occupation. Quilts come in all sizes, from as small as 12” by 12” to ones that cover a king size bed. Smaller quilts take about 2-3 days to make, while the larger quilts can take an entire month or longer to complete. Nancy’s largest have been queen size, which requires an incredible time commitment to a single piece of art, especially when that same art is your livelihood. There is an incredible variety to the materials used for the top of the quilt. Traditionally, the quilts were made with whatever was available — cloth sacks, old work shirts, etc. Many of these can still be seen in a lot of the quilts, often alongside new, modern fabrics. Someone had already made a quilt commemorating Auburn’s national championship, some three days after it had happened. I fell in love with a queen size one whose top was made with intersecting patterns of soft flannel. If I had $7500, I’d probably be laying in my bed underneath it right now (and so would my children and grandchildren — these quilts are built to last as heirlooms). The variety of materials and the use of truly innovative and modern patterning make these quilts stand out as some of the best art that I have ever seen in person. These are truly American cultural treasures, and you won’t find anything like them anywhere else in the world.

                Luckily, the practice continues to be passed on, and is even expanding to parts of the community that didn’t historically take part in it. I asked Nancy if any men made quilts and she said that while it was indeed rare, 12 year old Trey Pettway showed excellent promise in the quilts that he had already made.

January 20, 2011
Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers
Boykin, AL

Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers

Boykin, AL

January 19, 2011
Nancy Pettway
Gee’s Bend Quiltmaker
Boykin, Alabama 

Nancy Pettway

Gee’s Bend Quiltmaker

Boykin, Alabama 

January 16, 2011

Asheville Galleries 

January 15, 2011
The Gallery Scene — Asheville, NC

Coty and I decided that since commercial outlets for craft art are what makes much of craft art possible, that they merited discussion. Luckily, we were in the right spot to look at galleries. Asheville has long enjoyed status as a tourist destination, for its natural surroundings, historical sites, and its vibrant downtown. These factors combine to create what I would characterize as a distinctly southern, statedly unpretentious, yet elegantly metropolitan experience, an almost perfect combination for an arts scene to take rise in. Asheville’s tourism has enabled Asheville to become an ‘art town’, giving rise to almost innumerable art galleries for just about every type of art imaginable. With the tourism that Asheville enjoys, a greater audience is constantly bringing itself to see this art, and often paying a lot of money for it. Asheville is not a large town, with a population of only about 80,000, but its tourist attractions allowed for a disproportionate amount of artists and art galleries that can be found essentially anywhere in Asheville, especially downtown. This is a process that builds upon itself, as well – with more art galleries, Asheville has attracted more artists, more distinction as an art friendly town, and more tourists to sell the art to. Asheville now gets many ‘art tourists’, those who come to visit primarily to see and experience Asheville’s arts culture. After my dad’s residency at Penland, these galleries and Asheville’s art friendliness were ultimately the reason that my family moved here at all, and we haven’t left since.

I had a fairly cynical slant on these galleries before visiting. Though I’ve lived in Asheville for my whole life and had an artist for a parent, I never took a lot of interest in going to see the art inside. I saw them more as tourist destinations, like the Biltmore House (never been there, either), instead of outlets for the truly wonderful art that gets made in my area. After Coty and I visited as many as we could (it would take days to visit them all), I am admitting wrong. These galleries do not offer a Disney World version of the region’s craft art, but instead have absolutely incredible work that is done exclusively by local artists. Talking to some people working in the galleries, I gathered that while the clientele who frequent these galleries is largely from out of town, galleries’ strongest local connections are with their artists, and many galleries are artist-owned as well. Gallery owners, more often than not, have more than a purely business-oriented relationship with their artists. These strong ties were the most often cited reason that I was given for why Asheville galleries are able to obtain such varied and high quality work. Every gallery that we went to was owned locally, and I am not aware of a gallery in Asheville that is not.

The craft art that we saw in these galleries encompassed every medium (glass, clay, etc.) but also illuminated two different types of craft art: functional and artistic. At the Grovewood Gallery, we saw handmade furniture made from local and imported woods and fabrics. Their extensive collection of furniture is art every bit as much as anything else we saw, but is also made to be a functional part of everyday life for its owner. As you take a look, note the more subtle ways that these pieces function as art. It’s a different game altogether, and subtleties are the main vehicle for artistic expression in these pieces. Things like wood grain patterns and are what are important here, and every detail is just as pointed and determined as in fine art. Some pieces of furniture were more ‘normal’ looking and some used more modern design aesthetics, but this is truly the thread connecting all of the furniture. Pictures cannot do justice to the level of detail that are evident in every single piece. Please enjoy!

January 13, 2011

January 12, 2011
Caruso Chari

Caruso Chari

January 12, 2011
Thor Bueno
Lascaux rocks, oak

Thor Bueno

Lascaux rocks, oak

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