Main Street Gallery: The Making of a Folk Art Gallery
Aug 18, 2016 05:17PM
● By Melanie Heisinger
The interior of Main Street Gallery.
THE MAKING OF A FOLK ART GALLERY
by Jeanne Kronsnoble, owner, Main Street Gallery
When I began in the gallery business 31 years ago, I had no idea of the journey ahead.
It all really began for me sometime in the late 1970’s when I stumbled upon The Foxfire Foundation folk art collection. Foxfire was just up the mountain from where my husband, Jeffrey Kronsnoble, and I lived at that time in Mountain City, GA. My husband was an artist and professor of art at the University of South Florida and I was an aspiring artist with a degree in studio art. We spent our summers in the mountains, and we were curious about Foxfire. One Sunday we decided to explore. At that time, I don’t think I was aware that folk art existed; at least not that kind of folk art. My first encounter was a revelation that changed the way I looked at art.
Foxfire is a foundation dedicated to teaching children and preserving the heritage of the Appalachian tradition. That day, as we wandered down paths among the preserved log cabins, we came across an outside display of the most primitive stick-figure sculptures I had ever seen. I learned later that the person who created them was an eccentric man named C.P. Ligon. He was reputed to drive around with the back of his car filled with wooden animal and people figures. When Mr. Ligon would see a child, he would stop, tug out one of his constructions, and give it to the surprised child.
As I stared at these figures, I found myself transfixed by the simple but powerful expression that a few carved sticks in the hands of an artist with a vision could convey. It was something I would never forget. I didn’t know it then, but C.P. Ligon was my first brush with a contemporary folk artist.
THE BEGINNING OF MAIN STREET GALLERY
Fast forward to 1985. A friend and I rented a store on Main Street in Clayton where we could make and display our own artwork. Neither of us planned to have our efforts lead to the creation of a folk art gallery, but as it turned out, Main Street Gallery became just that. It began when a board member of The Hambidge Center suggested we host a three-pronged folk art exhibit along with Timpson Creek Gallery. Suddenly, we were off on a new adventure, with a perplexing problem. We had to find some folk art, and we had no idea where to start. We were in relatively unchartered water and folk art was not especially in vogue those days. There were already museums in Washington DC and New York that were exploring the field, but we were not aware of that.
One of my partners at the time (there were three of us by then), Helen Meadors, walked across the street to the bookstore and found a book called O,Appalachia. It was a compilation of stories about individual and unusual southern characters who made art. I began to research.
THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE
It didn’t take long to find and contact some of the artists featured in O, Appalachia. It was a long time ago, but I think the Reverend B.F. Perkins from Alabama may have been one of the first artists from the book I phoned. “Reverend Perkins, I have a gallery in Georgia and we are hosting a folk art exhibition. I wonder if you could send us some of your art for the show?” He agreed and told me his paintings sold for $100 each. (Selling now at auction in the thousands.) I asked for five paintings and about two weeks later they arrived in a box. I was very excited, but when I opened the package there was no packing material, and all the paintings were stuck together. He had packed them while the paint was still wet. We were fortunately able to salvage most, and we saved them for our show.
It was somewhat the same with other artists we contacted. O.L. Samuels sent us a wonderful elephant piece he had carved, but it arrived wrapped in a polyester sports coat, and packaged in a wooden orange crate. It was irretrievably broken.
We were learning. It became apparent to us, in this new, but exciting field, and I guess in most things, that the more one seeks, the more one discovers. All of a sudden, we were finding artists. I found an article in a local newspaper about an artist named Linda Anderson. I sought her out but she was committed to a gallery in Atlanta. She, however, suggested I visit an artist she knew named Sarah Rakes. Sarah, painter of brightly colored and patterned art, has been an important part of Main Street Gallery ever since.
Our collaborative exhibition with The Hambidge Center and Timpson Creek Gallery turned out to be a great success. We had discovered however, that we couldn’t ask for the art to come to us. If we wanted the best, and in one piece, we had to go out and get it.
THE ROAD TRIPS
With that in mind and an interest in meeting the artists, the three Main Street Gallery owners set out for the back roads and the numerous experiences that would come with it. We met Leroy Almon, Sr. in Tallapoosa, GA where we kneeled, held hands, and prayed with him in his tiny dome-like “church,” decorated with his carved angels. We thought it was somewhat strange, but it also seemed right. None of us could help but feel Leroy’s passionate spirituality which he was also able to convey in his art. On that same trip we met Lonnie Holley. We explored the incredible environment he constructed from found objects, and where he fashioned sculptures from leftover sandstone salvaged from the near-by Birmingham foundries. We were enthralled with Lonnie’s stories and art, but it was oppressively hot and there were hordes of mosquitoes. It was there that my second partner, Susan Belew, exasperated with the heat and bites, jokingly asked, “Why can’t we just sell something that comes on the UPS truck?”
On we drove to see artists, Mose and Annie Tolliver in Montgomery, then to Bankston, AL, home of Reverend BF Perkins (who also had his own homemade church, where, he claimed, he performed a wedding ceremony for George Jones). A visit with Jimmie Lee Sudduth, well known African-American artist who finger painted (“Brushes wear out.”) with Alabama mud mixed with soda pop, was next on our list.
I remember standing in a sweltering phone booth in Fayette, AL phoning Jimmy Lee Sudduth for directions. It was before cell phones or GPS systems. When he answered, I told him I was there to visit him but I needed to know how to find him. “Come on good girl,” he shouted good-naturedly into the phone, “I am right here, right here at the center of the universe!”
Well, to Jimmy Lee, and I was to learn, so many others like him, that was totally true. There is no holding back, no self-doubt, which is why the people of his genre can create as they do. “They come from all over to see me, as far as California, and that’s as far as you can go.”
Jimmie Lee wasn’t just a painter, he was a self-taught musician who loved to entertain. The three of us sat in his small, precariously tilting house on a roadside embankment, while Jimmie Lee performed his favorite train song. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” he chanted rhymically, and followed that with musical bursts from his electric harmonica, stomping his feet, and making various whoo-whoo train noises. We laughed, clapped, and hoped the house stayed up.
The stories began to accumulate.
INTO THE PRESENT
When Main Street Gallery came into existence, Clayton, GA was a quiet, small town. The old Belk Lindsay Department Store four doors north of my rented space on Main St., had sat empty and deteriorating for maybe ten years. Each time I walked by it on my way to the Post Office, I thought how wonderful it would be to have that kind of space to display art. In 1995, then as a sole owner of Main Street Gallery, I decided to purchase the building. As the real estate closing came closer, I began to worry. I had a small art gallery and was about to own a department store-sized space to renovate and maintain. I was familiar with renovating as I had been restoring historic houses in Tampa, FL for the past 10 years, but this was going to be an overwhelming and expensive task. Luck was with me though when Pete and Licia Cleaveland, who had moved from Atlanta, wanted to purchase half of the building for their art gallery, The Frog & Peach. It was the perfect solution.
The gallery took a year to complete and today it encompasses three floors. Clayton too, since those days, has undergone an important face lift with an infusion of new restaurants, shops, and ideas.
Main Street Gallery’s reputation as a contemporary folk art gallery grew. A highlight came when a New York Times article called “A 2000 Mile Forage for Folk Art” featured one of our road trips. It appeared as a full page article in the Arts and Leisure section of the Times. More recently Main Street Gallery was the winner in Brown’s Guides Facebook Poll asking readers to “Name your must stops along US 441 from Fargo at the Florida state line to Dillard at the North Carolina state line.”
Even though many of the artists I knew initially have passed away, and though there is more to do at the gallery than ever, road trips are still an essential way to acquire the art. Now, my first stop is usually to visit John Anderson, aka “Cornbread.” He is a popular Georgia artist whose fascination with woodland animals has morphed into a successful painting career.
These days Main Street Gallery also represents a few artists making fine art, and we (meaning Donn Brous, gallery manager, and I) continue to offer unusual handmade jewelry, pottery and furniture, but the interest in self-taught art and artists remains first in my heart and in the gallery.
What is folk art?
People often ask me to define folk art. There has been much written on the subject, but from my experience, and knowing so many artists, I have developed a personal perspective.
There are two basic kinds of folk art. One is traditional folk art where a craft is passed down through generations. Southern folk pottery is an example. The other is contemporary folk art also known as self-taught, vernacular, visionary, or outsider art. No one seems to agree on just one term.
In simple terms though, contemporary folk art or self-taught art, is art typically produced by artists who have no formal schooling in art. The self-taught do not look to mainstream art for inspiration, and many have no knowledge of it, at least not initially.
Writer and historian, Roger Cardinal, wrote in one of his essays on self-taught art, that it is the “self” in self-taught art that is important. His theory was that these artists are, among other things, are self-influenced, self-motivated, and self-involved. I think that is true.
I also think that a critical aspect, when defining the contemporary folk artist, or self-taught artist, is that they create with a distinct, recognizable style, and it is a style that is innate. It is something that does not usually evolve as in the fine art world. The artist works from some inner voice, and from some necessity to communicate. The art produced is direct and unpretentious. It conveys an authentic, often raw, or primitive expression that gets to the essence of the subject.
Religious visions, personal trauma, or necessity can be catalysts for creating. Howard Finster, perhaps the most famous self-taught artist, has often been described as a visionary. Religion was central to his art. Derek Webster, on the other hand, began his artistic career by making a fence in his yard to distinguish his property from his row house neighbors. Derek drew on his native Belize background to create carnival figures made from found objects. He retrieved bottle caps and other refuse from his janitorial job, and wood he picked up while fishing on Lake Michigan. Eventually, fascinated viewers convinced him that he was making art, and that he should make free-standing figures to share.
I believe self-taught artists are a special type of person. Some artists can work in a folk art style, influenced by the genre, but no one can decide to be a self-taught artist. One simply is, or is not, one of these people.
Maybe defining these artists is a little like trying to define love; it’s difficult, but once you experience love, you understand what it is, and once you know a contemporary folk artist, a real one, not much more explaining needs to be done.
For more information about Main Street Gallery, you can visit their website.