Saving the works of art of the South: a major investment and a drone

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – “I am the summoner of all my ancestors, 400 years of Africans in America,” said Joe minter , examining the dense o...


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – “I am the summoner of all my ancestors, 400 years of Africans in America,” said Joe minter, examining the dense outdoor environment of works of art he has forged from rubbish over the past 32 years in his half-acre yard, across from two of the largest African-American cemeteries in the south . Nodding his head at the gravestones, he added: “They have given me the privilege of being their spokesperson.”

Minter described receiving the word of God in 1989 to “pick up what was thrown, put it together, and put my words in it.” Since then, the artist, now 78 years old, with a gift for mechanics and previous jobs in auto construction and repair, has built “African village in America”. It is a succession of improvised sculptures that bear witness to the history of the diaspora and civil rights, the contributions of blacks and the events that shape the country.

For decades, with his seven-foot-tall talking stick adorned with colorful cords and waving bells, Minter has guided visitors arriving at his door through his cacophonous installation. They included the art collector Bill arnett, which was brought there in 1996 by the artist Lonnie holley, Minter’s friend.

“I call Bill the pioneer – no one else took the sword,” Minter said of Arnett, who died last year. One of the earliest champions of the work of black artists from the South, including Minter, Holley, Thornton dial, Purvis Young and quilts in Gee’s Bend, Ala., Arnett created the Deep souls Founded in 2010 for its collection of some 1,300 pieces by more than 160 artists and made a historical donation of 57 of these works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014 – including Minter’s 1995 anthropomorphic assembly of shovels, rakes and chains titled “Four hundred years of free labor.” Since then, through a collection transfer program under the direction of its president Maxwell Anderson, the foundation has facilitated the acquisition of more than 500 works by under-represented black artists in some 20 institutions.

But were they doing enough? “It was becoming imperative,” said Anderson, that this money go directly to artists whose work “had never been remunerated in a manner commensurate with the true value of these objects.”

The nonprofit Souls Grown Deep Foundation has expanded its mission by investing directly in communities across Alabama through partnerships and grants that impact artists like Minter and the Gee’s Bend quilters, where they live. , work and struggle, and tackle issues of their deepest personal concern. .

For Minter, that worry is the fate of his album when it’s gone (he just lost his wife, Hilda, earlier this month.)

“I can hear the bulldozer coming,” he said, alluding to the destruction of many worksite environments, including Holley’s in 1997 after a battle with the Birmingham Airport Authority. “I waited for someone to save it.”

This summer, with funding of $ 45,000 from Souls Grown Deep, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa used advanced geographic technology – designed to map rivers in three dimensions – to document every square foot of “African Village in America, ”a survey that will allow people to experience the installation in virtual reality.

“We are treating this like an archaeological site,” said Eric Courchesne, head of geospatial services at the university, who has overseen flights of drones capturing its dimensions – from top to bottom; a view from inside the space; and how the installation relates to the neighborhood. A second phase includes the filming of a guided tour narrated by Minter and the cataloging of the works, all for posting on a website.

“God looks down, like the drone,” Minter said. “I want him to see the progress and be able to say, well done.”

Kinshasa Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, believes that the long-standing debate in the museum field over whether artists like Minter or Holley should be classified as vernacular or self-taught “has really stifled the possibility that these voices are heard ”. she said. “What Souls Grown Deep has done is make the voices of these artists heard and give them the place they deserve in American art history.”

From Birmingham it takes two hours to drive south to Gee’s Bend, another place of pilgrimage, which has cultivated the astonishing tradition of patchwork quilting characterized by bold asymmetrical geometries and unexpected color combinations from scraps of denim, corduroy and old fabric. Since “Gee’s Bend Quilts” opened in 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston through advocacy from Arnett and visited 12 other institutions – Michael Kimmelman called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced” in his review for “The New York Times” – Gee’s Bend has become a globally recognized phenomenon and brand.

Yet the small, isolated community (renamed Boykin in 1949) defined by the Alabama River still has a poverty rate of over 55% and a median income of $ 12,457, according to 2019 US Census data. store, gas station or restaurant, visitors find it difficult to leave money behind.

Over the past year, Souls Grown Deep has invested over $ 1.1 million in community initiatives aimed at creating economic opportunities in Gee’s Bend. Nineteen quilts market their products in stores on Etsy, set up in February with a $ 100,000 grant from Souls Grown Deep and additional funding from its partners, Etsy and Nest. In the first six months, from the sale of quilts priced from $ 50 to $ 20,000, the artists collected 100 percent of the proceeds, totaling over $ 300,000.

“I can sit in my house and use my hands and work at my own pace and get some money to get in,” said Stella Pettway, one of the many quilters gathered at the visitor center near the ferry landing. . After her regular salary as a substitute teacher came to an abrupt end with the pandemic, she debated taking out a bank loan that she couldn’t repay. Today, thanks to sales of quilts, she was able to buy a car and a computer for her grandson.

In addition, license and art gallery sales, also facilitated by Souls Grown Deep and Nest, have brought in $ 400,000 in the past 12 months to quilters. (The New York dealer Nicelle Beauchêne sells historic Gee’s Bend quilts for up to $ 60,000.)

Mary margaret pettway, a quilt maker who was elected Souls Grown Deep board chair in 2018, said the foundation’s efforts have made all the difference here.

“We are not a wealthy community,” she said, “but I have learned that we are rich in artisans, just like a colony of artists.” While some quilts did better than others, “everyone got a taste of the pie,” she said. “Every day we try to open it up to more people here, the younger the better.” She passed on to her two children the tradition she learned at age 11 from her mother, Lucy T. Pettway, whose work is in the collections of museums in New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Richmond and Toledo.

Dotting County Road 29 from Alberta to Gee’s Bend are faded, community made signs with reproductions of the 10 quilts commemorated in 2006 on US postage stamps. But signs, like stamps, don’t name artists, including Loretta Pettway, Mary lee bendolph and Jessie T. Pettway, who still live.

Souls Grown Deep worked with the design firm Pentacle to improve signage to provide information about each quilt and is currently creating an expanded cultural trail that could attract tourists visiting civil rights monuments near Selma and Montgomery, where the Heritage Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in 2018.

“People can discover not only the art but also the racial injustice and history of the Bend,” said Anderson, who has spent more than $ 100,000 of his foundation’s resources on additional markers in places like as the church where Dr. King urged the franchise in 1965. before Selma’s march to Montgomery.

Also on the tour is the historic Bee Quilting Liberty building, a women’s sewing cooperative founded in 1966 that had contracts with quilters to sell bedding and bags for stores, including Sears, until the 1990s. Elaine Williams, who recalls being at the daycare there while her mother and aunts were working, created a non-profit organization with $ 250,000 from Souls Grown Deep to begin revitalizing the long-dormant building as a heritage center hosting workshops, a library and cafe.

Williams plans to build tourist accommodation and event space on the 13-acre property. (The well attended Gee’s Bend Quilt Retreats are now being held in Mississippi due to lack of local facilities.)

Making the Freedom Quilting Bee building habitable will be a major undertaking. The structure, dotted with sewing machines on the bright red floor, suffered extensive water damage and mold. But Kim V. Kelly, a community activist based in Camden, Alabama, thinks the concept is sound.

“Elaine wants to make it attractive for people to come and view quilts, learn a bit of history and buy stuff,” Kelly said, “no wonder why did I come back here?”

Souls Grown Deep’s biggest community investment, $ 600,000, was in black-owned clothing company Paskho, which leased and modernized two buildings in Alberta and Gee’s Bend for the production of an online collection of Gee’s Bend clothing. “With all the companies that I have run, I should be able to build something that really helps tackle social inequalities in America,” said Patrick Robinson, founder of Paskho and veteran of the fashion industry, who designed a first series of asymmetrical tops with a contrasting hand. -seams inspired by the aesthetic of the community.

In July, he hired more than a dozen skilled seamstresses from Gee’s Bend, starting at $ 16 an hour.

“When I go there, women start telling me what to change about every thing they make,” he laughed, “and they’re allowed to do it.”

He expects the sewing module, which cost his business about $ 250,000 to set up, to become profitable in October, after three months of operation. “Gee’s Bend is a huge draw for our customers,” said Robinson.

Although women do not receive a percentage of the royalties, Paskho can become a beacon for other companies.

Whatever the set of parameters, it’s incredibly difficult to break the cycle of generational poverty in the South, according to Conwill, of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But she believes the Souls Grown Deep effort “puts a lie to the idea that these are unsolvable circumstances that could never be changed,” she said.

Unlike the old days, “the challenge will not be lack of will,” she added. “The challenge will not be the lack of respect.

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