Just because folk art is self-taught, and in some cases untaught, don’t assume it isn’t deeply rooted in tradition. At last weekend’s Slotin Folk Fest (itself a 16-year tradition), respect for the values and icons of the past were clearly in evidence. From shadow-box tributes to late, great bluesmen to a beloved grandmother’s portrait made from shards of Blue Willow china, artists brought their passion and respect for tradition to the forefront, all the while infusing it with core values peculiarly American: freedom and self-expression.
“Our story is the labor that we put into America,” says Birmingham artist Joe Minter, whose “American-made” sculptures transcend and give dignity to the cast-off materials that serve as his medium. “Some people may look at this and say it’s junk, but junk is what made you…. You might have to go back to that old junkpile sometime. Our theme is: How can we forget who we are?”
“Our ancestors made the footprint, and when you step into that footprint, you have to be proud of it. Through their work comes sweat and tears. You have to recognize that how you got here is through work. The only way to know the future is to pass through the past. I’m trying to preserve a little small piece of what we are for the next generation. In the next generation you can see a light, and that light is hope. The future is in your hands. Your job is not done until you ask God permission to say, ‘I done the best I could.’”
Each of Minter’s pieces has a story behind it. For example, Coal Miner’s Daughter tells the story of a hard-working man and the reason he risks his life every day.
“A coal miner is a [man] of courage,” Minter says. “It takes courage to dig yourself into a hole every day, a dark pit like death itself. He asks himself, ‘How can I keep on going? To make a better life for my children, that’s why I’m here.’” The big smile on the little girl’s face is what her daddy wants to see when he comes home, what he thought about the whole time he was working in the mine. In her hands she holds picks used by her father and grandfather, symbolically honoring her ancestors and remembering the sacrifices made on her behalf. It’s a story of love, respect, and tradition—forged in heavy metal.
Minter’s work can be seen on display in the garden near his house. His African Village in America honors both African tradition and the achievements of African Americans.
Also appearing at the Slotin Folk Fest was recent Atlanta transplant Gregory Warmack, better known as “Mr. Imagination” (or “Mr. I” to his friends). Mr. Imagination is something of a celebrity in the world of outsider art, with work on display in the Contemporary Wing of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. His work, with its distinctive bottle-cap motifs, has been featured in exhibitions across the country, from Walt Disney World to the Atlanta Olympics to the House of Blues locations in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Orlando locations. Some call him a visionary, but Mr. Imagination dismisses talk of these accolades, saying, “I’m just an artist.” He’d rather tell you about his plans to found an artist’s retreat in his new hometown or about his other upcoming projects, among them a book and a movie.
Mr. Imagination’s life story, in fact, plays like a Hollywood movie. In 1978 Warmack was mugged, shot twice in the stomach at point-blank range, and spent six months in a coma. While in the hospital, he had an “out-of-body” experience . When he was able, he resumed his work with renewed passion and creativity, taking the name “Mr. Imagination.” Despite the further setback of a tragic apartment fire that destroyed his home and much of his work (and killed his beloved dog), Mr. Imagination has won national and international recognition, both for his art and for his charitable work with children.
I could have stayed and talked with Mr. Imagination all day, were it not for the legions of his fans and well-wishers who stopped by to peruse his work or get his autograph, so regretfully, I had to leave—but not before trying on his distinctive (and heavy) bottle-cap encrusted hat!
Mr. Imagination was one of several artists appearing at the festival under the umbrella of Who-Ha Da-Da, a co-op of about 50 outsider artists who have banded together to promote their work. As it happens, Who-Ha Da-Da (“Da-Da” from the artistic movement, “Who-Ha” from an inside joke) has as its home base Smyrna, Georgia.
Who-Ha Da-Da is a seven-year-old 501(c)3 nonprofit with a mission to promote Southern vernacular visual art. “The whole idea is to get folk art out to the people,” says co-founder Paul Flack.
Flack invokes past and future themes when talking about the movement: “The old guard folk artists are going quickly. The new artists are using contemporary media, have educations, and have been exposed to mass media, so they are different,” Flack says. Even so, he continues, the “gen-next” new wave of folk artists is carrying out the traditions of contemporary folk-art pioneers such as the late Howard Finster.
“I call it ‘accessible art,’” Flack says. “It’s here. It’s real. You can smell it, feel it, laugh at it and take it home with you. It’s this creative expression inside of people that is just erupting. You can’t hold it down!”
Flack says the work seen at Folk Fest in Atlanta will be taken, polished and copied at art festivals across the country.
“Folk Fest,” he says, “is where you see it first.”
Joe Minter’s friend Orrin Ford serves as a point of contact for the artist. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.