Georgias Own Treasure: Folk Artists
I once heard about a factory worker who retired after 30 years of service. On his first day of his retirement, he started a garden in his backyard. With the first strike of the hoe to the soil, he hit a rock. As he went to remove the rock from the garden, he noticed that it was shiny. Brushing away the dirt, he had just discovered the single largest nugget of gold in North Georgias history. He was an instant millionaire. And of course, the moral of this story is he had actually been rich his entire life. All he ever needed to do was scratch the surface in his own backyard. In 1992, as a traveling sales rep. I found my treasure in Georgias backyard.
About 11 years ago, I was traveling the back roads of the South selling books when I decided to stop in an old soda shop in the small town of Cleveland, Georgia. It was the kind of soda shop that still sold coke floats in dixie paper cups and packs of cinnamon toothpicks. Every summer during my high school and college days, I had worked at a summer camp, not more than a rock throw from this very soda shop. In fact, on days off, I occasionally visited this very same soda shop. But it was on this particular visit, that I noticed, for the first time, the face jugs starring back at me from the soda shop counter. At first glance, I thought these were the ugliest things I had ever seen. But the more I looked, the more I grew to love them. Although I had many more accounts to visit that day, I couldn’t help but take the time to speak to the owner about these unusual faces I had come across. He told me quite simply, that these ugly jugs were made by a local man, Lanier Meaders, and that he lived right down the road. My accounts would have to wait. I was off on an adventure to find this potter.
After a five minute ride, I was at Lanier Meaders house. I knocked on the door and Betty Jean, Laniers wife, answered and let me in. Lanier was sitting back in his lazyboy chair. I was 27 and Lanier had already retired from potting five years earlier. He had just started his second treatment of chemotherapy for cancer. Although it looked to me that he was in great pain, he still took the time to speak with me. We talked for about 20-30 minutes, until Lanier dozed off from the medication he was taking. Betty Jean walked me out. I thanked her for letting me come by and letting me visit with Lanier. It was at that point, that I realized that I had spent so many hours looking for the great southern culture, including all the best BBQ places, Blue Grass Barns, Biscuits and Gravy, Swimming Holes, Home Cooking, hiking trails. And all this time, what I was really looking for, was right here in my summer backyard.
Lanier Meaders pottery captured the visual culture I had been searching for. It was this taste of the the real American South which drove me towards an insatiable desire to find more of this overlooked Southern Culture. After my visit with Lanier, I truly understood that this was a dying culture. I knew that I now wanted to learn, visit and inhale as much of this culture as I could, before it was too late.
In the years since my first visit with Lanier, I have learned much about the world of folk art and visited with many incredible and colorful artists. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of Georgias greatest treasures and introduce you to some Southern culture.
The nations’ most famous and interesting folk artist, was Georgia’s own, the late Rev. Howard Finster of Summerville. A major attraction for visitors is Howard’s personal creation, Paradise Garden. In this environmental masterpiece, Howard took refuse of all shapes and sizes, from old coke bottles, to small appliances, to kitchen utensils and made a land of beauty and intrigue. At age 83, Howard is still meticulously painting, and loves to tell people about his visions and how the Lord instructed him to make sacred art.
Another must-see environment was created by Eddie Owens Martin, otherwise known as St. EOM. St. EOM was a self-proclaimed mystic and psychic, a fortune-teller, as well as, an artist. The area surrounding his farm is highly decorated structures made from cement, punched tin, and wood, decorated with brightly colored painted walls, sculpted shapes, male and female figures, faces and snakes and odd geometric patterns. Although St. EOM passed away in 1986, his Marion County environment is still standing and I personally guarantee this one trip you wont want to miss.
One of the richest resources of Georgia is the African-American self-taught artist. My personal favorite, is the work of J.B. Murry, the only folk artist known to create solely in the abstract. His abstract figures represent the human spirit. Murry was an illiterate share cropper who never learned to read or write. But this did not stop him from inventing his own written language which looks much like scribbles and is referred to as automatic writing. To read his own writing, Murry would gaze at the lines through a bottle of holy well water. If you were unable to read the writing, Murry claimed that you were not "saved" because the words came directly from God.
Ulysses Davis was another of Georgia’s treasures. He was quite possibly, the nation’s best self-taught woodcarver. Davis was a Savannah Barber who carved free standing wood sculptures, presidential portraits, crucifixes and other biblical creatures and characters. Even the door frame to his barbershop was intricately carved with roses and his shop was filled with his wooden creations. Davis once said that a gentlemen from Atlanta offered him "a lot of money" for all his carvings in his shop. He replied, "I am a man of very little money, but if I were to sell you all of my carvings, then I would be a poor man." His carvings remained in his shop until his death, at which point, the entire collection was moved to a local Savannah museum.
Other very important African-American folk artists from Georgia include; the recently deceased Leroy Almon, Sr. from Tallapoosa, whos intricate and colorful wood-relief carvings often depict the evil temptations of modern society, Moultries O.L. Samuels, whos personality is as colorful as the fantasy creatures he creates, Atlanta native, Archie Byron, who produces beautiful and powerful works from sawdust and glue, Bessie Harvey and Ralph Griffin, both from rural Georgia, who produced unusual root sculptures, and Lorenzo Scott and Nellie Mae Rowe, two of Atlantas best known and popular folk artists.
Another form of folk art that is also very popular is memory painting. These artists paint primitive scenes of a more innocent time, often remembered from childhood, in meticulous detail. Mattie Lou O’Kelley, from Decatur, is often referred to as "The Grandma Moses of the South." Her intricate, yet naive, paintings are a vivid and colorful glimpse of the rural life she remembered. Sadly, Mattie Lou recently passed away. Many of her works can now be found in The High Museum’s permanent collection.
Many wonderful memory painters such as, Mary Greene, Linda Anderson, and Annie Wellborn (North Georgia area), Wesley Carter (Alma) are still living and producing a living history of yesteryear; a time many of us never had the pleasure of knowing.
In your quest to discover to Georgias hidden treasures, you wont want to miss visiting R.A. Millers whirligig garden (Rabbit Town), and the next generation of folk potters, Michael Crocker (Lula). There are so many more folk artists in Georgia that are worth visiting and learning from. I would suggest that your first stop be your local library or bookstore to search for The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Folk Art and Artists by Chuck and Jan Rosenak. Next, you should visit local galleries such as Knoke Galleries of Atlanta on Roswell Rd., Modern Primitive Gallery in Virginia Highlands and Main Street Gallery in Clayton. Finally, get a map and hit the road.
With the urbanization and homogenizing of the South, I am afraid to say that we may be seeing the last generation of true folk artists. In less than a year’s time, we have lost such Georgia Greats as Mattie Lou O’Kelley, Leroy Almon, and the man who started me on this whole journey, from one face jug in a soda shop in North Georgia, Lanier Meaders. There is a sense of urgency to collect and protect these homegrown treasures. I encourage everyone to be my guest at this year’s Folk Fest 2004, the largest gathering of folk and self-taught art and artists from around the country (August 20-22, at the North Atlanta Trade Center). For more information about Folk Art and Folk Art events, feel free to contact me personally.
Producer of Folk Fest and Slotin Folk Art Auctions