Folk Art Jubilee

Self-taught artists and their fans mingle each fall at Alabama's up close and personal Kentuck Festival

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“These are artists who are pursuing creativity because of some personal experience that provides a source of inspiration that has nothing to do with having gone to art school,” says Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, former chief curator of the SmithsonianAmericanArt Museum and now chief curator of the PeabodyEssexMuseum in Salem, Massachusetts. While some contemporary folk artists have physical or mental disabilities or difficult personal circumstances, Hartigan says there is an unfortunate tendency to assume that all such artists are divorced from everyday life. “Their inspiration is not different from fine artists. They are commenting on the world around them,” she says. “Perhaps some are expressing anxieties or beliefs through art. Others find inspiration in spiritual beliefs.”


Parked under a canopy of oaks is Chris Hubbard’s Heaven and Hell Car, influenced, he says, by his Catholic upbringing and a longtime interest in Latin American religious folk art. It’s a 1990 Honda Civic encrusted with found objects such as toys, and tin-and-wood figures he’s made of saints, angels and devils. “I wanted to bring art to the streets,” says Hubbard, 45, of Athens, Georgia, who six years ago left a 20-year career in environmental consulting and microbiology to become an artist. “I knew I had to make an art car after seeing a parade of 200 of them in Texas in 1996,” he says. The car has nearly 250,000 miles on it; he drives it 25,000 miles a year to as many as 16 art and car shows. To satisfy requests from admirers and collectors, he began selling “off the car” art—figures like the ones glued to the vehicle. Hubbard’s next art car will be Redención, a 1988 Nissan pickup truck with 130,000 miles on it. “It’s gonna be this gypsy wagon covered with rusty metal, tools and buckets and boxes,” he announces.


Across a grassy ditch, a riot of color blazes from the booth of “Miz Thang,” 47-year-old Debbie Garner from Hawkinsville, Georgia. Her foot-high cutouts of rock ’n’ roll and blues artists, ranging from B.B. King to such lesser-known musicians as Johnny Shines and Hound Dog Taylor, dangle from wire screens. Garner, a special-education teacher, is here for her third show; she finds inspiration for her blues guys in the music she loves. “I’d like to be doing this full time, but can’t while I’m putting two kids through college,” she says matter-of-factly. “Making this stuff just floats my boat and shakes my soul.” Garner’s inventory is moving too; by the end of the weekend, she’s sold most of the two hundred or so pieces she brought with her.


Trying to make a successful first showing, Tom Haney, 41, from Atlanta, displays his animated, articulated wooden figures in a carefully ordered booth. Intricately carved and painted, the figures move—they jump, dance and gyrate with arms flying and hats tipping, powered by a hand-cranked Victrola motor or triggered by piano-type keys. Haney says he puts in 100 or so hours on a small piece and up to 300 on the more complex figures. Which may explain his prices: while folk art at nearby booths sells for $10 to $500, Haney’s work is priced from $3,200 to $8,000. “Kentuck is the ideal place to show,” he says. “My work needs to be demonstrated face to face.” This weekend, however, he will not make a single sale; he plans to return to the festival for another try.


sunday morning the rain arrives, and tents and tarps go up over the artwork as the weekend’s music performers take their place onstage. Each year’s festival ends with a concert; this one features bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, rediscovered by a new generation thanks to the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Kentuck really is a big ol’ party of Southern hospitality,” says artist Woodie Long. “These people drive all this way to see some good art and make friends; the least we can do is thank ’em with some good old-timey music—and hope they’ll forget about the rain.”


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