Book, exhibit channel ‘Spirit’ of Southern self-taught art

“When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South,” a new book that profiles 32 contemporary artists, makes a strong case that worthy folk art has never stopped pouring out of our region.

Which may come as a revelation to those who felt the genre was on its last legs after its heyday during the final decades of the 20th century.

For many years, impassioned collectors and hip nightclubs (such as the House of Blues chain) and forward-thinking galleries and institutions (such as the High Museum of Art) could not get enough of the colorfully hued paintings, drawings and found-object sculpture by untrained artists.

But some of those devotees judged the emerging makers who followed folk art’s old guard — whose chief proponents had included Georgia preacher-turned-artist Howard Finster and Jimmy Lee Sudduth, an Alabaman who used his fingers to paint with mud — as more faux than true folk. The notion was that most of the earlier artists had operated out of rural outposts during the genre’s heyday, and the newcomers could hardly create art for art’s sake if plugged in, like the rest of the world, via the Internet and cellphones.

Pardon “When the Spirit Speaks” (Schiffer Publishing, $34.99) author Margaret Day Allen if she differs with that dismissal. In addition to her book, the Hickory, N.C., writer helped organize an exhibit of artists from “Spirit Speaks” at Main Street Gallery in Clayton that’s on view through Dec. 8.

We recently spoke with Allen about her belief in their work.

Q: In “Spirit Speaks,” you acknowledge that there are those who dismiss contemporary folk art as “inauthentic.” Is that negative take part of what motivated you — to show that today’s artists deserve further consideration?

A: I have heard some people say there are no authentic folk artists still alive. I feel differently based on the many artists I have personally met.

I think part of the discussion centers around the term “folk art” and how people define it. … Some people use “folk art” to mean art that is created within a tradition. Another term commonly used is “outsider art,” meaning art made by people who are outside the contemporary art mainstream.

I chose to use the term “self-taught” to describe the artists I wrote about. Although this term is often used interchangeably with “folk art” or “outsider art,” it has a slightly different feel, in my opinion. It means that the person was not formally trained, but essentially taught themselves to make art.

Q: Can you detail a couple of examples of artists included in your book who fit this “self-taught” concept?

A: J.J. Cromer (of Virginia) is a highly educated man, holding advanced college degrees and having worked as a librarian. However, he does not have any formal art training. Although he lives in a rural area, it is by choice. He is in contact with the outside world and aware of the work of other artists. His art is influenced by his life experiences.

Bruce New (of Kentucky) taught himself to make art, but he is well aware of contemporary art and is married to an art teacher. His collages reflect his life experiences and the influence of popular culture.

Q: In fact, you’ve called the idea that folk art can only be made by people living in isolation of some sort a “myth.” Can you explain?

A: It would be almost impossible today to find someone who has not been influenced by something or someone. Although many self-taught artists are not influenced by taking art classes or visiting art museums, they may be influenced by things they see on the Internet.

Also, I do not think someone has to live in extreme poverty to be an authentic folk artist. Fortunately, times have changed, and most people in this country have the basic necessities of life. Most have access to television and the Internet. That makes their art different from the art of earlier folk artists, but it is still an authentic reflection of their lives.

Even earlier generations of self-taught artists were influenced by popular culture. Many painted pop icons such as sports figures or musicians of their day. I think it is unreasonable to expect self-taught artists to live in the past while the rest of the world changes.

Q: What inspired you to become a folk art follower and collector?

A: My husband, Robert, and I have occasionally bought pieces of self-taught art since we married 40 years ago. However, we became seriously interested in the subject about 15 years ago. We live in the Catawba Valley region of North Carolina, which is famous for its folk pottery tradition. We began buying this locally produced pottery (by Burlon Craig and potters he mentored) and later expanded into collecting other types of folk art.

Q: What appealed to you most?

A: Self-taught art is easy to appreciate. You do not need an art degree to understand it. You just look at it and have an immediate reaction to it. Another thing we like is that it’s usually more affordable than art made by academically trained artists, so you can buy what you like and learn as you go.

Q: Do you think the South is richer in folk artists than other regions?

A: I’m not sure I know the answer. I know that many of the most famous folk artists live or have lived in the South. I know that other talented folk artists live in other parts of the country. …

I believe the creative impulse lives in all of us, and that talented self-taught artists are everywhere. It may be that many of them are undiscovered.

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