Tag Archives: folk art

Blind Faith

String Quilt (detail), Unidentified Maker (c. 1970)

Faith involves an acceptance of absurdity. – Zadie Smith, author

I’ve followed the work of various “folk” or “outsider” or “visionary” or “naïve” self-taught artists since college and remain eternally confused about what is the best and most inoffensive label to place on them. Of course, labels constantly evolve and what was respectful in one decade might be deemed offensive down the road.

The Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), in its current exhibition, “The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection,” lands on “makers” as the appropriate contemporary term. It makes perfect sense since the word “maker” has had a resurgence among artists and those who apply hands-on skills. The term does not delineate between level of skill and training and place. Picasso, after all, was a “maker,” as are all of the artists in this compelling show.

I wrote about my connection to Helen and Robert Cargo when BMA presented an exhibit of their collection of Haitian vodou flags in 2016 (“Communion: Haitian Vodou Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art”). They were my neighbors and landlords during part of my graduate school years in Tuscaloosa.  Dr. Robert Cargo taught French literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Classics at Alabama. I was aware that they were collectors of art by various folk and outsider artists but did not realize the extent of their collection until they opened the Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1984.

Tree of Life quilt, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas (c. 1875-1880)

The Cargos have passed away but they made generous donations of their collection – in particular to the BMA – over the years. Their daughter, Caroline Cargo, has continued that generosity with substantial donations of the Cargo Collection – some of which are on view in the current Birmingham exhibition which will be up until the end of 2018.

The exhibit is sumptuous and detailed – a comprehensive overview of the range of the makers on display. The Cargos were avid collectors of Southern quilts and the exhibition includes a quilt by Dr. Cargo’s great-grandmother, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas, which sparked a life-long interest in quilts and quilters. Quilts from many periods and styles are on display throughout the exhibition, including works by more contemporary quilters such as Nora Ezell, Mary Maxtion, and Yvonne Wells, as well as Joanna Pettway of the acclaimed Gee’s Bend quilters. Some of the most stunning quilts are by unidentified makers. Dr. Cargo’s interest in male quilters is represented by a broken star patterned quilt by Afton Germany.

“Bust of Ethel (Artist’s Wife); Jimmy Lee Suddeth (1992)

Some of the makers in the exhibit are already well-known to me and others are new or lesser-known. Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Suddeth, and Mose “Mose T” Tolliver are familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in Alabama makers. Suddeth famously made the majority of his paints from various muds and clays and I was particularly moved by a painting of his wife, Ethel, done in the year she died.

Untitled (Men and Women Seated at Table), Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones (1993)








Among the artists who are new to me is Kentuckian Denzil Goodpaster, whose charming wood carvings include an image of Dolly Parton performing as well as a trio of cheerleaders. The smiling faces of the people and the stoic faces of the various animals are memorable in the works of Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones, while the subtly rendered ethereal paintings of faces, flora, and fauna on brown paper bags by Sybil Gibson are haunting. I passed these images quickly during my visit to the museum but found myself thinking about them later and wanting to look at them again. Fortunately, the exhibition catalogue, available in the museum gift shop, makes that possible.

“Story of My Life” (detail), Leroy Almon Sr. (1987)

Chuckie Williams’s two-sided paintings of pop culture icons are bold, vivid, and good-natured. While Williams was recovering from an emotional breakdown, he felt called by Jesus to paint. It was particularly exciting to discover the autobiographical six-panel “Story of My Life” by Leroy Almon Sr., including images of houses and places he lived, jobs that he worked, and his calling to pursue art. Almon became an ordained minister (as well as a police dispatcher) in the final years of his life.




Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. — Paul Tillich, Christian theologian

various Gourds, Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins, c. 1984-1989

Starting with an interest in the divinely inspired works of visionary artists Sister Gertrude Morgan and Howard Finster and the evolution of W.C. Rice’s stark and foreboding installation, “Cross Garden,” near Prattville, Alabama, I have been fascinated with the many outsider makers who have felt called by God to create their art. In the Cargo exhibit, a centerpiece is the visionary work of Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins. Perkins’s colorful and inventive art is showcased in an installation of his painting on a variety of media – birdhouses, gourds, text tracts on wooden boards. Rev. Perkins felt divinely inspired to spread the Gospel through his individual works and installations and the bulk of works in that area of the exhibition are devoted to art that is specifically religious in nature. Also of interest, however, are the inclusion of Perkins images and paintings prompted by his fascination with American patriotism, the history of time and the calendar, and the contents of King Tuthankamun’s tomb.

“Angel Choir with Director,” Fred Webster (1983-1987)

Artist Fred Webster is represented by a series of cases filled with works inspired by biblical stories from the old and new testaments. The carved images cover a wide span of biblical events along with more fanciful images of a choir of angels and a band of devils. Webster’s more secular subject matter includes images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and George Wallace delivering an address from his wheelchair. A collection of busts of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, along with a full-body carving take up about half of a display case.

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, in essence, that there is no faith without doubt but there is a part of me that envies the blind faith of these makers, many of whom followed a divine inspiration without falter or question.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1

The Authentic Vision: Brother Joseph’s Ave Maria Grotto

IMG_1617  Authenticity in folk art (“outsider” art, self-taught artists – whatever the current designation of choice may be) is a topic that has long intrigued me. There are any number of phonies – some of them the off-spring of the real thing – who try to cash in on the folk art market. The idea of the authentic artist who creates art from an impulse that comes from within is what I seek in the work of “outsiders.”

IMG_1614Brother Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961), a Bavarian-born monk who spent the bulk of his life at St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, is an example of that inspired authenticity, I think. Brother Joseph had no training as an artist but created historical and fantasy structures that are a lasting tribute to inspiration and faith. His Ave Maria Grotto (www.avemariagrotto.com) is nestled on the Abbey grounds along with the still active monastery and the St. Bernard Preparatory School which replaced St. Bernard College when it closed in 1979.

IMG_1631Brother Joseph’s impressive installation in the abandoned quarry of the Abbey includes at least 125 structures created out of stone, cement, and discarded items. The centerpiece of the four-acre park is the large Ave Maria Grotto but its focal points are structures – real and fantasy, sectarian and non-sectarian – taken from world culture. The structures span the globe but a large number of them are based on buildings and sites in Rome and Jerusalem. When I was growing up everybody referred to Ave Maria Grotto as “Little Jerusalem.”

IMG_1637I first saw the place as a young boy in the days of “roadside attractions” before the interstate system was ubiquitous. I remembered it fondly as a kitschy place with edifices constructed of concrete and broken glass, broken marble and colorful discarded gaming marbles, costume jewelry and cold cream jars.  IMG_1602 One fanciful monument is topped by green Irish fishing floats. I remembered a miniature Noah’s Ark installation with plastic animals and a fantasy piece called “Hansel and Gretel Visit the Temple of the Fairies” complete with a fierce dragon bound by a chain underneath. A life-size statue of Pope Pius X is just down the hill from a miniature Egyptian-style pyramid. A miniature section of the Great Wall of China hovers close to touching memorials to “St. Bernard Boys” who died in various 20th Century wars in which the United States was involved. There are a 48-star American flag made with marbles, glass, and cement and a replica of the World Peace Church, the Catholic Cathedral at Hiroshima. IMG_1647

All of these things are still there.

Brother Joseph’s first structures were crafted around 1912 and his last, an impressive replica of the Lourdes Basilica, was built in 1958. I remembered the place as a quirky roadside attraction but on a recent visit I was struck by the level of craft and artistry, spirituality, and personal mission represented in the little monk’s life’s work. He was not a world traveler and had only personally viewed a handful of the structures he created – those from his Bavarian home town of Landshut and those on the grounds of the Abbey in Cullman. The rest were composed from photographs, the Bible and other written texts, and his imagination. Brother Joseph started constructing the buildings in his spare time when his job was to shovel coal at the Abbey’s power station. IMG_1627

A few structures have been added to the installation since Brother Joseph died including a life-size bronze statue of Brother Joseph facing his monumental Grotto. After one has toured the installation, a shaded path with the Stations of the Cross leads to the Abbey Cemetery where the monks, including Brother Joseph, are laid to rest. A small stone chapel stands watch over the cemetery. It is a quiet and reflective place, conducive to meditation and contemplation. IMG_1685

Community and Kentuck

IMG_0775   I never know what will catch my eye at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Alabama, right across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. It is always held on the third weekend in October (www.kentuck.org).

This weekend, October 18-19, was the 41st running of the Kentuck Festival. I began attending when the Festival was in its toddler stage, around #2 or #3. I’m not sure which one because, like turnip greens, Kentuck now seems ubiquitous in my life. Journalist and Columbia University professor Claudia Dreifus writes that Alabama is a “hotspot” for visual and musical art and that “Kentuck is an incubator, a nursery, a home.”

The festival started on a small local scale in 1971 and has grown in size and reputation ever since, frequently and nationally being touted as among the finest of its kind. Folk, self-taught, and visionary artists have always been the backbone of the Kentuck Festival but it includes a diverse and impressive array of visual artists from the South, throughout the United States, and beyond. The festival takes place in a wooded area of a park not far from Northport’s downtown but the Kentuck organization operates year-round with resident artists, studios, galleries, and workshops spread along Main Street and throughout the city.

Everything builds to the festival. Artists, dealers, patrons, and sightseers converge from all over the country to purchase, mingle, look at art, and meet the artists. Demonstrations, musical performances, storytellers, and food areas round out the sensory overload of the event. I counted more than 250 artist exhibitors in booths spread among towering trees. An added bonus was when I stumbled upon an art installation in an environment adjacent to the Festival grounds. Meredith Randall Knight’s M.F.A. exhibition, “The Marrow of It,” features nebulous concrete abstractions nestled within and interacting with a natural environment just steps from the festival.


The sense of community is palpable and is one of the factors that always brings me back. Kentuck gives me an opportunity to visit with friends – many of whom I only see annually at Kentuck and some of whom I have known since I was an undergraduate at Alabama in the ‘70s. I can check out new directions in their art, find out how the art circuit has been this year, and catch up on the family.

Among those friends I count on seeing are Lou and Daniel Livingston. It’s always good to see Daniel’s bold works in clay, bright and shiny and delicate. Tim Weber, whose work I’ve followed and collected since he was in residence at Kentuck, is constantly creating new forms in his clay work as well as revisiting and fine tuning forms that he has been doing throughout his career. Close by Daniel Livingston’s area are Andrew and Etta McCall and their lovely little church structures and bird houses and free-form baskets.

T.R. Reid keeps creating whimsical and original whirligigs while his partner, Jeanie Holland, displays her colorful mixed media wares one booth over.

Folk pottery legend Jerry Brown has his face jugs on display among the exhibitors and the Miller family from Miller’s Pottery in Brent, Alabama, throws pieces as patrons look on. The Millers have roots going back to the early days of Alabama potteries.

Amos Paul Kennedy, whose letterpress shop used to be based in Alabama locations, has now relocated to Detroit, Michigan, but still sets up a press at Kentuck to produce his array of colorful and clever posters

I have pieces by all of the aforementioned artists in my home and living with their art is made even more special by knowing and interacting with the artists. Most of my pieces were purchased directly from the maker.

Charlie Lucas, the “Tin Man” and a legend in his own right, seems always to be hard at work on new sculptures in the rusting metal enclosure that houses his work at the festival. Steve Shepard’s outspoken and brightly colored paintings, often sprinkled with his unharnessed opinions on politics and other issues, are as entertaining as the animated conversations with the artist himself.

A new Kentuck discovery this year was Clay Bush, who makes amazing bags, wallets, backpacks, satchels, and other designs from repurposed automobile seatbelts. The structure of his designs is flawless and the execution is masterful

My main purchase this year was a copper and steel balanced wind vane by Allan Kress of the Alabama Forge Council. The finely wrought copper feather moves wistfully, dancing delicately with the breeze. I never know what will catch my eye at Kentuck and I never know, until I’m there, what I’ll be bringing home. For one weekend in October, a community of artists in Northport, Alabama, supplies positive and creative energy that will sustain and inspire me in the days to come.