Under the towering pines hard by Alabama’s Black Warrior River, the talk at 8 a.m. on an October Saturday is of a forecast of rain. When the exhibited work of 38 folk artists is made of mud, cardboard, sticks and rags—and the exhibit is out-of-doors—wet weather can indeed mean a washout.
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But for now the sun shines, merciful news for the 30,000 people expected today and tomorrow at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, held the third weekend of every October in the woods near downtown Northport, across the river from Tuscaloosa. Here is America’s folk art at its most personal, a unique event where nationally acclaimed self-taught and primitive artists create, show and sell their work themselves. To see these “roots artists” otherwise would, in many cases, involve road trips through the backwoods and hollows of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. Over its 32-year history, the show has taken on the homey atmosphere of a family reunion, with many buyers returning year after year to chat with the artists and add to their collections. (I am one of those fans; over the years, I’ve collected work by some of the artists featured on these pages.)
At the entrance to the festival, Sam McMillan, a 77-year-old artist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, holds court, resplendent in a polka-dot daubed suit that matches the painted furniture, lamps and birdhouses for sale behind him. “People walk in and catch a sight of me and think, ‘Whoa now, what’s happening at this place today?’” says McMillan. “They know they’re in for something different.’’ Kentuck is the most intimate event of its kind in the nation, says Ginger Young, a visitor and art dealer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “For many of us, art encounters consist of hushed museum exhibitions and pretentious gallery openings,” she says. “Kentuck is unrivaled in its ability to blaze a direct connection between artists and art fans. What happens at Kentuck is akin to a good old-fashioned Southern revival.”
Kentuck (it’s named for an early settlement on the site of the present-day town; the origin of the word is unclear) began in 1971 as an offshoot of Northport’s centennial celebration. That first festival, says founding director Georgine Clarke, featured only 20 artists; two years later there were 35. “We quickly outgrew the downtown location and had our eyes on an overgrown park a little ways out of town,” she says. “Postmaster Ellis Teer and I walked around it to figure out how much of it we could mow—Ellis brought his lawn mower along—and that became the area we’d set up in. Each year we mowed a little bit more, and the festival grew that much.” The exhibition now covers half of the 38.5-acre park and showcases more than 200 traditional craftspeople quilting, forging metal, weaving baskets, making furniture and throwing pottery. But the big draw remains the extraordinary collection of authentic folk artists, each with stories to tell about how they started and where they get their inspiration. Many of the artists now have works in the permanent collections of museums like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Baltimore’s AmericanVisionaryArt Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art. But here at Kentuck, the artists can be found leaning against a rusty Olds Delta 88, playing a harmonica or picking a guitar, ready to chat.
Jimmie Lee Sudduth, 93, is parked in a folding chair next to his car and is engulfed by a crowd that eagerly flips through his mud paintings, which are stacked against a tree. Sudduth, from nearby Fayette, Alabama, has been finger painting with mud since 1917. His work is in the collection of New York City’s American Folk Art Museum.