Southern self-taught art is one of my favorite art traditions. This may be because I’m Southern, but it’s also because it brings up some interesting issues in regard to the spirituality of art, as well as the artist’s engagement with materials in their surrounding environment. In particular, it is the tendency to reuse or recycle materials that speaks most clearly to the spirituality of vernacular traditions and represents the artist’s ability to imagine and recognize beauty in the everyday. It throws up all of our preconceptions about what it means to be an artist in today’s world; the artist at the top of society on his aesthetic pedestal gives way to the hard-working and innovative common man who sees that there is more than meets the eye in most everything we encounter.
Different types of folk art use recycling of discarded materials as the basis for their aesthetic. Mixed media visual art, quilting, and yard art are just a few that come to mind. It can be anything from old bottles hung up to catch sunlight, quilts made from old work clothes, or elaborate sculptures made from old furniture, household items, scrap lumber or metal. Through their recycled art, self-taught artists make unique places where they can explore the issues of creativity, memory, the environment, and spirituality.
By encountering and re-purposing materials that would otherwise be thrown away, artists are giving them new life and maintaining the memories that might be associated with a particular object. Old furniture from a loved one’s home made into a make-shift planter or sculpture keeps the memory of that person alive. Furthermore, it gives artists room to explore how humans affect their environment, creating something of “useful beauty” out of what might be left in a landfill.
What is possibly most interesting about the Southern folk art tradition is its religious aspect, the spiritual striving that defines so much of the poor origins that many of these artists come from. Thornton Dial, in his Creation Story, suggests the intersection between the act of recycling and the act of creation. It suggests the spiritual significance of using discarded, rejected, or otherwise useless materials. In this work, he uses clothing, carpet, steel, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood. A collection of “trash” becomes a new way of looking at the world. One commentator describes it as a “mythic ‘creation story’” in which the ability to find uses for even the smallest scraps has defined the real-world virtuosity of black women and men through generations of make-do living conditions. This work in particular was inspired by the quilts and quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who also convey a “make-do moral imperative” in their art. What perhaps began as the absolute need to use and reuse whatever one had became a symbol of overcoming adversity and spiritual struggle. It is the sign of the fact that hard times breed spiritual growth and the fact that one can always be made new. This making new is at the heart of the Southern folk art aesthetic. We are reminded that we can participate in the making new of creation with Christ by encountering the good, the moral, and the beautiful in the everyday objects of life.