This summer the Frist Center for the Visual Arts
presents two exhibitions exploring parallels between folk and self-taught artists of the American South. Creation Story: Gees Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial includes 44 works20 quilts by the women of Gees Bend and 24 paintings and assemblages by Thornton Dialdrawn primarily from Atlantas Souls Grown Deep Foundations 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 Centers Ingram Gallery from May 25 through September 23, 2012.
Gees 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 Gees 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 Gees Bend distinctly original. Since 2002, the quilts of Gees 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 Gees 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 Gees 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 Gees Bend quilt makers in 2001 and found inspiration in their form of artistic expression. While Dials social symbolism contrasts with the abstraction of the Gees 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 years 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 artists 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. Traylors 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 artists talent, Shannon proceeded to foster Traylors work by furnishing art supplies and purchasing some of his drawings, serving to preserve much of his early work. Previous exhibitions have looked at Traylors work from many angles, explains Ms. Crawley, but none has emphasized the role of Shannon in the preservation of Traylors drawings and their placement in American museums.
In this exhibition, we not only want to showcase the best of Traylors drawings, but also highlight Shannons contributions to the artists 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 Shannons efforts. Traylors 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: Gees 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.