Painting the whole picture

The way Ted Oliver sees it, art can portray both the positive and negative aspects of culture and history. “Art doesn’t always have to show pretty things, it can also show the struggle and the problems that have evolved,” explains the co-owner of Oliver’s Southern Folk Art in Hendersonville.

“The greatest poet I ever heard was a Southern bird—Word!”

by — A.M.

When Jamaican-born artist Athlone Clarke immigrated to the United States in 1985, he was making a living as a freelance writer. He was also painting and exhibiting at various Southeastern shows. But, according to his bio, “In the years that followed, his writing established a relationship with his visual work and eventually gave birth to an exciting, colorful mixed media offspring.”

“Masked Men”: “You look white, I look black, but underneath we have all kinds of races that are mixed together to create who we are.”

On his MySpace site, Clarke goes on to explain, “The language of art does not always have to be cloaked in professorial codes that are cleverly hidden in intimidating abstractions, nor does it always have to be safe and comfortable. I thrive on experimentation and am a firm believer that there is no ‘have to’ in art.”

That spirit of boundless experimentation is evident in the Douglasville, Ga.-based painter’s compositions, which draw from folk-art traditions (objects are flattened, shadow is eliminated) and African traditions (family, spirituality and objects of personal importance are featured prominently in the works, while other objects are rendered smaller). Themes of humor (in “Stoner Lisa,” a rendition of the famed Mona Lisa appears in dark sunglasses) and current events (New Orleans, the outsourcing of work) find their way into Clarke’s ever-increasing collection.

Assemblage—in this case, photos, newspaper clippings, toys and whatever else Clarke has on hard—make their way onto the colorful and paint-thick canvases. But Clarke’s work, for all it heady, image-heavy intensity, still maintains a close connection to the artist’s love of the written word. Poems, phrases and thoughts find their way into collages, serving as captions as well as moral compasses. One piece, a figure on a blue and green background, reads, “The greatest poet I ever heard was a Southern bird.” And then, in red as if for emphasis: “Word!”

who: No Water Can Put Out This Freedom Fire
what: Artwork by Athlone Clarke
where: Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 (86 N. Main St., Waynesville)
when: Tuesday, Feb. 3, through Saturday, Feb. 28. Opening reception on Saturday, Feb. 7 (6-8:30 p.m. Info: 452-0593)

Spirit of boundless experimentation: Multimedia piece called “African” by Athlone Clark.

Case in point: The upcoming Haywood County Arts Council exhibit, Visions of Freedom, which Oliver curated. The show, he says, deals with “the idea of race relations in Alabama” and “the cultural heritage of African-Americans and their struggle for equal rights.”

So why is a gallery in Waynesville showcasing the works of five Alabama-based artists? Partly because a small show needs a narrow scope, Oliver says, and Alabama artists maintain a close connection to ideals of African-American equality—due in large part to civil rights milestones that happened in Alabama (for starters, it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. came to prominence and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus).

Oliver discovered the civil rights theme in folk art while giving a presentation last year. The director of the Haywood County Arts Council, who had invited Oliver to give a talk on art, suggested an exhibition of such works (Visions of Freedom opens just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day), and Oliver set to work commissioning pieces from artists he knows who explore concepts of race.

One such artist is octogenarian memory painter Bernice Sims, whose primitive, Grandma Moses-style images depict events from her own involvement with the civil rights movement. “She was working with voter registration and getting rid of the poll tax [a $5 fee levied at the polls to prevent impoverished African-Americans for exercising their right to vote] in her county,” Oliver explains. Sims, now well known, has shown at the famous Kentuck Festival of the Arts and her painting “Pettus Bridge” was reproduced on a U.S. postage stamp.

Proving that the scope of Visions of Freedom is contemporary as well as historical, the work of sculptor Lonnie Holley is geared toward inspiring African-Americans to feel pride in their heritage. “He states that the African-American race is the mother race and his work has all these connections back to Africa, and distinctly black themes,” Oliver says.

Another artist, Michael Banks, seems at the outset to have little in common with Sims or Holley. Banks, who’s in his 30s, creates edgy, modern work. “He’s done all these paintings of faces splitting open where there’d be one color on the outside, like white, and then on the inside would be brown,” says Oliver. Banks told him, “You know, everybody’s different colors … you look white, I look black, but underneath we have all kinds of races that are mixed together to create who we are.” Banks’ paintings, says Oliver, “illustrate the fact that we are all different colors.” The young artist’s work has been exhibited not just in the American Southeast, but also in Paris and Florence.

“All We Could Do Was Pick Cotton”: Colorful work from octogenarian memory painter Bernice Sims.

Oliver, who sells work internationally, notes a trend among Europeans collecting the work of Southern African-American folk artists. “They find all the African-American artists extremely interesting, more so than the white artists. I think their connection to the art of the South is also rooted in their exposure to blues and jazz, and they feel it’s a more authentic culture than the Anglo culture.”

International acclaim aside, Visions of Freedom offers collectors a chance to acquire some of this culture-documenting work. The majority of the 50 or so pieces will be for sale for $150-$950. “The amazing thing is that it’s still very affordable,” Oliver notes. “As time passes, it will become extremely valuable.”

who: Visions of Freedom
what: An exhibition of Alabama folk art focusing on themes of race
where: Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 (86 N. Main St., Waynesville)
when: Wednesday, Jan. 14 through Saturday, Jan. 31. Opening reception on Friday, Jan. 16 (6-8:30 p.m. Info: 452-0593)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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