Frist Center Presents Acclaimed Folk and Self-taught Alabama Artists

This summer the Frist Center for the Visual Arts will present two exhibitions exploring parallels between folk and self-taught artists of the American South.  Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial includes 44 works—20 quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend and 24 paintings and assemblages by Thornton Dial—drawn primarily from Atlanta’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s noted collection of Southern African American art.  A concurrent exhibition, Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, features 65 paintings and drawings by the renowned self-taught artist Bill Traylor.  Both exhibitions will be on display in the Frist Center’s Ingram Gallery from May 25 through September 23, 2012.

Gee’s Bend, a small rural area near Selma, Ala. is known for its unique quiltmaking traditions that date to the 19th century.  These traditions continue to be stewarded and expanded upon by a group of about 40 mostly elderly women of the community.  The Gee’s Bend quilters utilize salvaged fabric to create surprising orchestrations of strong colors, dynamic patterns and eccentric geometric shapes.  Whether wholly improvised or loosely based on the classic traditions of American quilt making, the dynamic designs and evocative power of their repurposed materials make the quilts of Gee’s Bend distinctly original. Since 2002, the quilts of Gee’s Bend have been the subject of major exhibitions at prestigious museums around the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

“Beyond their utility, these quilts have served as a creative outlet for the women of Gee’s Bend, who strive to achieve beautiful and surprising effects while acknowledging the capacity of reused materials to evoke family, memory, loss, and renewal,” says Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala. “From the haunting reminders of life in the hardscrabble agrarian South contained in early work-clothes quilts to the near-musical rhythms and syncopations of the latest endeavors, the quilts blur the boundaries between craft, folk art and fine art.  Born of poverty and necessity, they have come to stand in the public imagination for the unquenchable and universal desire for beauty.”

Thornton Dial (born 1928) suffered economic hardship and racial oppression much like that experienced by the Gee’s Bend quilters.  Yet his artistic path has been his own; while the quilters’ skills were handed down from one generation to the next, Dial never trained as an artist and did not think of himself as such when he began composing assemblages while working as a laborer in the industrial town of Bessemer, Ala.  Dial became aware of the Gee’s Bend quilt makers in 2001 and found inspiration in their form of artistic expression. “While Dial’s social symbolism contrasts with the abstraction of the Gee’s Bend quilts,” Mr. Scala notes, “the two are undeniably linked by the poetic power of raw materials, which they transform into expressions of beauty and truth.

“While he is self-taught, Dial has drawn inspiration from two traditions of African American vernacular art,” continues Mr. Scala. “The first is the quilt itself, with its expressive use of materials, ethos of recycling and geometric compositions. Dial often employs quilts in his work, using them to celebrate the strong and nurturing women who raised him.” The second artistic influence on both Dial and the quilters is yard art, found-object displays in which arrangements of discarded materials serve as deeply coded visual expressions. Likewise, Dial uses discarded and leftover detritus to create his symbolic assemblages. “Combining the associative connotations of everyday materials, Dial links his own memories to such subjects as racism, poverty, and observations about current events from the Occupy movement to last year’s tsunami in Japan” says Mr. Scala.

Bill Traylor, also a self-taught artist like Dial, was born into slavery around 1854.  For most of his life, he worked as a field-hand on the Alabama plantation where he was born. Traylor moved to the city of Montgomery in the late 1920s.  Despite having no artistic training or education, he began drawing at age 82 and was extremely prolific, creating an estimated 1,200 works within four years.  Many of his compositions were created on discarded shirt cardboard, cast-off signs, or other shaped supports whose irregular forms influenced his designs.

The artist’s works are known for their flat, simply-defined shapes and vibrant compositions in which memories, folk legends and observations related to African American life are merged. “Traylor’s stylized forms are immediately recognizable for their economy, wit and formal tension,” says Susan Mitchell Crawley, curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and curator of Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. “His subject matter usually involved events from plantation life, passersby on the street around him, and animals. Far from embodying a common stereotype of the vernacular artist as a visionary, Traylor created compositions that are neither mystical nor religious but distinctly secular, filled with images that may be present, remembered or imaginary.”

In 1939, painter Charles Shannon encountered Traylor drawing while sitting on the Monroe Street sidewalk in Montgomery.  Recognizing the artist’s talent, Shannon proceeded to foster Traylor’s work by furnishing art supplies and purchasing some of his drawings, serving to preserve much of his early work.  “Previous exhibitions have looked at Traylor’s work from many angles,” explains Ms. Crawley, “but none has emphasized the role of Shannon in the preservation of Traylor’s drawings and their placement in American museums.

“In this exhibition, we not only want to showcase the best of Traylor’s drawings, but also highlight Shannon’s contributions to the artist’s legacy.”  Traylor was one of a tiny number of Southern African American vernacular artists working prior to 1960 whose works garnered attention from the art establishment during their lifetimes due to Shannon’s efforts. Traylor’s high status in the self-taught art world is evident in his presence in at least 87 group and 30 solo exhibitions between since 1983. Today, Traylor is recognized as one of the finest self-taught American artists of the 20th century.

Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial and Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts not only explore the thematic intersections of these acclaimed folk and self-taught Alabama artists, but also celebrates their imagination and inventiveness, demonstrating that creativity occurs regardless of circumstances or level of education.

Exhibition Credits
Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial has been organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta, Ga.

Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts has been co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Ga. And the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala.

Exhibition Catalogues
The illustrated catalogue for Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial is distributed by Vanderbilt University Press. The catalogue features essays by Paul Arnett, curator of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation collection, and Joanne Cubbs, independent curator and curator of Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial. Catalogue entries were written by William S. Arnett, collector, scholar, founder and chief curator of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation; Paul Arnett; and Phillip March Jones.

Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring an essay by Curator of Folk Art at the High Museum in Atlanta and organizing curator Susan Mitchell Crawley, as well as Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, Leslie H. Paisley, Fred Barron and Jeffrey Wolf.

Exhibition Sponsors

Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Platinum Sponsor:
The HCA Foundation on behalf of HCA and the TriStar Family of Hospitals

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is supported in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Related Public Programs
Friday, May 25  
12:00 p.m.
Gallery Conversation: Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. Presented by William S. Arnett, founder and chief curator, Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Mark Scala, chief curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Meet at exhibition entrance  
Free with purchase of gallery admission   

William Arnett and Mark Scala will engage in conversation about various artworks presented in the exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial, exploring the parallels and intersections in the works of these acclaimed Alabama artists. 

Saturday, May 26   
11:00 a.m.
Gallery Talk: Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Presented by Susan Mitchell Crawley, curator of folk art, High Museum of Art

Meet at exhibition entrance  
Free with purchase of  gallery admission 

Join Susan Mitchell Crawley, curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, as she explores the work of Bill Traylor in which memories, folk legends, and observations relating to African-American life are merged.

Friday, June 1  
7:00 p.m.
ARTini: Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of  Thornton Dial

Meet at exhibition entrance
Free with purchase of gallery admission

Join Shaun Giles, educator for outreach at the Frist Center, as he leads an informal conversation about some of the works included in the exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial.

Are you curious about art?  Do you want to learn more about the content and concepts behind an artist’s work?  If you answered yes to either of those questions, then the ARTini program is for you! ARTinis are designed for everyone—from the novice to the connoisseur—and include informal and insightful conversations that offer a deeper understanding of one or two works of art in an exhibition.

*Please note: This program will be repeated Tuesday, June 5 at 12:00 p.m.

Thursday, June 7  
12:00 p.m.
Curator’s Tour: Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial

Meet at exhibition entrance
Free; with purchase of gallery admission

Join Mark Scala, chief curator at the Frist Center, for a tour of the exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial.

Thursday, June 14  
Artist’s Perspective: Ben Venom “Heavy Quilting”
6:30 p.m.

Frist Center Auditorium
Free; seating is first come, first seated

In this lecture, San Francisco-based artist, Ben Venom will discuss his interest in juxtaposing traditional handmade crafts with one of the more extreme musical genres, heavy metal.  His work can be described as a collision of Iron Maiden metal ballads with the outrageous stage antics of Ozzy Osbourne. His work is serious, yet attempts to take on a B-movie horror film style, where even the beasts of metal need a warm blanket to sleep with.

Friday, June 15 and   
Saturday, June 16 
Don’t Be Square: Adult Studio Series—A Two-Part Workshop, Guest Artist: Ben Venom
10:00 a.m.–4:00p.m.

Session One: Friday, June 15
Session Two: Saturday, June 16
$120 per participant. Cost includes gallery admission, parking, lunch during both sessions, and some materials. Participants must provide their own sewing machine, T-shirts, and fabrics.
Registration opens on April 1 through the following link:  http://www.watkins.edu/community or participants may call 615.277.7455.

Join San Francisco-based artist Ben Venom, who is interested in juxtaposing traditional handmade crafts with his interest in heavy metal music, for a two-day workshop exploring quilt design and construction and challenging the concept that quilting is only the domain of folk art. The workshop will begin at the Frist Center with a tour of the exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial followed by lunch.  In the afternoon, and the following day, the program will continue at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film where participants will create an individually designed small quilting square from their own worn out T-shirt or found fabric. The workshops will cover appliqué, basting, and quilt construction. No prior experience with quilting is required. Presented in collaboration with Watkins College of Art, Design & Film.

Sunday, June 17  
Artful Tales: “The River that Gave Gifts”
2:00–3:00 p.m.

Frist Center Auditorium/Studios
Free

Join in a story about sharing creativity and the spirit of community. After that, collaborate with family and friends to create an artwork connected to the tradition of quilt making. This activity complements the Frist Center’s current exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. 

Artful Tales is a monthly interactive family program that combines the oral tradition of storytelling with hands-on, art-making activities to explore stories and cultures from around the world.  This program is part of the Connecting Cultures: Children’s Stories from across the World exhibition and is funded in part by the Nissan Foundation and Publix Super Markets Charities.

Saturday, July 21   
8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
Travel: Day Trip to The National Quilt Museum, Paducah, Kentucky

$30 members/$50 non-members
Cost includes bus travel, admission to The National Quilt Museum, lecture, and guided tour
Cost does not include lunch and admission into nearby museums
Space is limited; advanced registration required
Call 615.744.3355
Registration and payment must be received by Friday, July 6

This is an opportunity to visit a museum dedicated to presenting quilts that honor the history of the craft while embracing the contemporary. Your experience will include a curatorial presentation with Judy Schwender, curator of collection and a guided tour of the exhibits, The Exquisite Stitch: 200 Years of Hand Quilting and Blending the Old and the New: Quilts by Paul D. Pilgrim. After the museum tour, you may continue to tour the museum on your own, enjoy a leisurely lunch at any of the local eateries, visit any of the six surrounding museums, or spend time shopping in the numerous galleries and craft shops found downtown. Your registration packet will include information to assist in planning.

This program is being held in conjunction with the exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial on view in the Frist Center’s Ingram Gallery from May 25 to September 3, 2012 which explores parallels and intersections in the works of these acclaimed Alabama artists.

Thursday, August 9   
6:30 p.m. 
Artist’s Forum featuring quilters Bets Ramsey and Judi Wortham-Sauls

Rechter Room
Free

Artist’s Forum is a program in which Nashville-based and regional emerging and recognized artists discuss the thoughts and processes behind their work. Participants are encouraged to come and be part of a dialogue about the artistic process.

This month’s Artist’s Forum invites quilters Bets Ramsey and Judi Wortham-Sauls to speak about their artistic processes and concepts exploring the themes of creativity as expressed through place, material and memory. This forum supports the exhibition Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial.

About the Frist Center
Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., is an art exhibition center dedicated to presenting the finest visual art from local, regional, U.S. and international sources in a program of changing exhibitions. The Frist Center’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features interactive stations relating to Frist Center exhibitions. Gallery admission to the Frist Center is free for visitors 18 and younger and to Frist Center members. Frist Center admission is $10.00 for adults and $7.00 for seniors, military and college students with ID.  College students are admitted free Thursday and Friday evenings (with the exception of Frist Fridays), 5–9 p.m.  Discounts are offered for groups of 10 or more with advance reservation by calling (615) 744-3247.The Frist Center is open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. and Sundays, 1–5:30 p.m., with the Frist Center Café opening at noon. Additional information is available by calling (615) 244-3340 or by visiting our Web site at http://www.fristcenter.org.

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