Coloring in a family art tradition at Folk Fest

A new crop of artists comes to market every August at Folk Fest, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink showcase of self-taught art whose 18th edition overtakes Gwinnett County's North Atlanta Trade Center this weekend. Some are true contenders, blessed with raw talent that promises a fruitful career, and some turn out to be never-will-be's.

Alabama artist Rik Long, who has worked the edges of the folk world for years, finally takes his turn in the spotlight this weekend. The gallery representing him, Dawsonville's Around Back at Rocky's Place, believes he's got a gift.

That may have something to do with his DNA. Long is the son of famed folk artist Woodie Long, a fixture at the first 14 Folk Fests who drew collectors, followers and friends from across the Southeast.

A zen spirit who grew his own vegetables and celebrated rural Southern scenes in vivid shades, Woodie Long died of cancer at age 66 in 2009. The loss was shocking to his many admirers who figured a youthful force who conveyed such vitality on canvas and in life would keep cranking at least into his 80s.

"He was lucky enough to make it in his lifetime and he knew that he was lucky," Rik Long was saying of his dad over the phone from his home in Andalusia, Ala., where the son moved in 1992 to get to know his old man better. "And he tried to pass on his happiness to everybody. No one he met was a stranger. He always remembered where he came from. Well, the paintings show that."

It will come as a surprise to many who admired and bought Woodie Long's works that he had a son who is a folk artist. But Rik Long's parents divorced early and he was raised by his mom, Carol Hubbard. Rik attended Heritage High School in Conyers, far removed from his dad's late-years refuges in Andalusia (a lower Alabama town of some 10,000 that many Atlantans blow through on the way to the beach) and the Florida Panhandle. Rik spent his early adulthood in Tampa, learning watch repair from his grandfather.

Encouraged by his father -- best advice: "Don't feel distracted because somebody says, ‘My kid could do that'" -- he began painting nearly 20 years ago. But he throttled down in the late '90s, disillusioned by trained artists who were invading the folk domain and turning stuff out in a primitive style to turn an easy buck.

"It was out of control," said Long, now 47 and also a bowling alley mechanic. "I quit pushing it for the longest time. But in the last few years I've jumped back into it and I want to do it broader now. It's time that the new names come out."

Still, Long was so obscure a couple of years ago that sisters Robin Blan and Tracey Burnette -- owners of Around Back at Rocky's Place, which represents more than 150 self-taught artists -- had not heard of him when they happened upon his creations at Big Mama's Hula Girl Gallery in Grayton Beach, Fla.

They were so taken by Long's elemental pieces, a series of religious works painted with multi-hued mud he had harvested from the gravel road outside his house, that they purchased more than a dozen. Soon they contacted Long and were not only buying more Bible-inspired mud works but also ones from his ongoing series of "City People," gyrating urbanites painted in acrylics on a bright, solid background.

Long has painted "City People," which in small ways recall his father's almost vibrating string musicians and dancing figures, for nearly two decades but it's only in the last year or two that he feels he's gotten the hang of them.

It's Long's tribute to the life of the city -- New York's Central Park is also a recurring subject -- but he's happy to not have to battle Atlanta's morning rush hour and to live out in the country where he can barely see a neighbor's house. "To create art, I have to be in the right mind frame," he said. "There's just peace of mind being out here. I really love it."

After one of his dad's closest folk art comrades, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, passed away in 2007 at age 97, Rik Long adopted some of the fellow Alabama painter's mud-painting techniques. Long considers his pieces a homage and his little resemble Sudduth's more detailed depictions of people, animals, trains and buildings.

Side by side, Long's two distinct styles share little in common. Conventional art world wisdom holds that makers should produce in a singular, easy-to-identify style, but  he believes it would be a mistake to limit himself.

"I hear that a lot: ‘It's like two different artists,'" said Long, who will also show at the Arts on the Creek Festival in Johns Creek on Sept. 3-4. "And I take that as a compliment because it's hard to make it in one style, let alone produce something else they would like."

That works for gallery owners Blan and Burnette, who believe Long is ripe to break out, though they want him to build slowly and keep his prices affordable (11-by-14-inch "City People" paintings, for instance, will go for $85 at Folk Fest).

"People who are buying his work are buying because it's Rik Long, not Woodie's son," Blan noted. "People are loving his work."

Event preview

Folk Fest

5-10 p.m. Aug. 19. Meet the Artists Party and show opening ($15, includes readmission all weekend). 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 20, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 21 ($7; free for ages 16 and under). North Atlanta Trade Center, 1700 Jeurgens Court, Norcross (Exit 101 off I-85). 770-532-1115,