The Atlanta Folk Art Festival, now in its 13th year, is probably the largest and most distinguished self-taught exhibit in the world, hosting 90 galleries and artists and attracting more than 12,000 visitors annually.
Housed in Atlanta Trade Center – 80,000 square feet, the aisles wide, cool and breezy in spite of crowds moving about the towering displays – painting, sculpture, fabric art, pottery, quilts – multicultural and mixed media – prices range from 5 bucks to 5 figures. At many booths the artists themselves are present, working while viewers gather around.
Here, museums, prominent galleries, publications, and collectors make discoveries, and visitors who want good art have it, often procuring pieces that grow in value. Renovation to the building and the addition of a restaurant – serving the full gamut of American tastes in salads, sandwiches, vegetarian and Mediterranean selections – even frozen margaritas – completes the satisfaction.
Folk art rage began in 1965, when Smithsonian Museum made a documentary film, The Meaders Family: North Georgia Pottery in Cleveland, Georgia, about Cheever and Lanier Meaders, who were making utilitarian storage vessels in the 19th century fashion, using hand-dug clay. The museum asked for some jugs to take back to Washington DC, and they were such a huge hit with the public, the Meaders began to make the vessels full-time, perhaps single-handedly saving southern folk pottery.
Festival organizer Steve Slotin grew up a stone’s throw from Meaders, and his discovery of the Smithsonian’s film made him wonder: what else is out there? His search yielded artists, nearly all in their 80s and 90s, creating works at the twilight of their lives whose originality and innate artistic sensibility, in color, line, material, use of space, constituted a great American vision of what art is about.
Festival visitors might recognize works by Georgia’s own king of folk art, the late Howard Finster, found in museums worldwide, and artist Bernice Sims, who grew up in Alabama during segregation and painted beautifully-executed, un-idealized memories of her 1960s childhood. Bill Traylor, a freed slave who drew on discarded pieces of cardboard and paper bags had a genius for converting junk to works of permanent value. Sold for pennies in the 1930s and 40s, they now wear price tags of $50,000 and more. Some of his work will be on exhibit at Folk Fest 2006.
Other pieces to look for are Haitian oil drum sculptures, flattened metal with chisled designs. Haitian painters like Claude Damberville and Michelet Edoard capture the market atmosphere – an everyday, everywhere Haitian phenomenon. Anna Romano of Le Primitif Galleries, which has offered Haitian art at the Folk Fest since its inception, says, “People like folk art because it is not pompous or pretentious. It speaks to what’s unconditioned in all of us.”
“Folk Fest encourages us to truly see the treasures in our own backyards.” Slotin agrees. “Instead of wasting money on mass-produced prints, the Folk Festival makes authentic, one-of-a-kind pieces affordable. You don’t need to be told what to buy. Choose what you like. It may turn out to be a great investment.”
When: August 18, 19, and 20
Where: Atlanta Trade Center, I-85 and Indian Trail Blvd.
Admission: Friday $15, Sat. Sun. $7