Camp Kentuck 2015

Growing up, I loved the idea of camp. I always imagined the long, restless rides to the middle-of-nowhere, hoping that the kid next to me would stop creating whirlwinds of dirt and dust with his shoe. I couldn’t wait to sit around the campfire on a moonlit night, praying that I didn’t wet myself because the dark reminded me of a devilish abyss. More so, I was amused with the thought of saving everyone from the camp’s star-studded, arch-nemesis like Billy Harlan in the Goosebumps episode, “Welcome to Camp Nightmare.” I’d always wanted to burn out as a hero.

Traveling to Kentuck gave me the chance to relish that feeling I’d once had. My childish anticipation was building up, as I stuffed myself into the corner of my Joslyn’s minivan. I swallowed the bittersweet idea of this being the final year of hearing Dickson’s “You got your Kentuck artists yet?” ricochet off the walls of my brain, then asked another Mia to buckle my seatbelt. What started as a giggly “pass me the snack bag” charade eventually transformed into the tedious task of trying to catch Ashlee and Mia sleeping on film; I couldn’t count on my fingers how many times I had to scoot over in order to watch Mia’s head topple and jerk upwards in a tiresome frenzy.

Two years ago, I dragged myself out of my bed in the wee hours of the morning, slogged through the cold rain to this unknown land, not fully comprehending what I was doing. Now, I was glad to have the sun meet me head-first at the Baymont Inn; The outside features reminded me of an old Renaissance castle, the ones writer’s talk about in a scary nonfiction piece, a place that becomes haunted by an unforeseen soul a thousand years later.

The morning of Kentuck was chilly but I swallowed my pride because I really wanted to wear the striped dress I had on. I told myself I’d be the first in Joslyn’s car, if push came to shove. I knew the morning’s drive wouldn’t be long, since we were only a few minutes away, but I put in my earphones and prepared my mind for what seemed like a long day.

When we arrived, I noticed the grassy field we’d parked in my tenth grade year; I grimaced, thinking we’d park there the second time in a row. Instead, a young boy, mashing this green stick in the air, directed us into our designated parking lot. At last, we were here!

IMG_6882The setup of Kentuck reminded me of the Montgomery Zoo. Trees skyrocketed through the air at uneven heights, families were scattered in different places, and the fresh dirt from the ground met the soles of my shoes with no remorse for how much my granddad and I had spent cleaning them the day before. The day’s journey started with Jasmine by my side; we were off to find Marian Baker, a mixed-media specialist who had fallen in love with blockhead art. In tent C-30, we were greeted with a “Hi! How are y’all!” from a short woman, who exclaimed that she could talk her life away. I laughed and thought about how much I loved her sweet, Southern drawl. I was even more impressed with the fact that she not only loved what she did, but was financially self-sufficient!

The first piece she ever painted was of her grandmother from the Great Depression; this didn’t come as much of a shock since I’d already known that much of her work was either “family inclined” or “materials inclined.” Everything comes into fruition under an hour through an eleven-step process, starting with her husband sanding the boards first. The feedback she was getting from the outside world proved her commitment; Baker has been in cities like Palm Beach and Chicago, doing one or two shows a month. Plus, a few of her paintings had been featured in movies. Even on a lukewarm morning like that, she made it easier to feel happy.

Not too far along the way, roaming around the outer, back part of her pastel tent was Olive Kraus. In retrospect, she reminded me a lot of Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. I could tell she had an inquisitive and eclectic taste to her simply from the way her hair was pulled into two, messy pigtails; it was like looking at art itself. Keeping in mind that she’d lived in a desert shack without water or electricity for four and half years, I calmly asked if she was, in fact, the “infamous Olive Kraus?”

Kraus scrunched her eyebrows and replied, “Yes, who’s asking?”

Pleased with not only her presentation, but her quick wit, I smiled, expressing my reasons for being here.

IMG_6886Kraus’s roots in the arts were etched in her soul; her parents were both artists, and she majored in art history in college. In 2012, after what took her five years to qualify for Kentuck, she won Best of Show for her fiber sculptures of livestock; before flat painting (which is her muse as of now) she dabbled in things like jewelry as well. She said that much of her motivation came from her profit and she enjoyed looking at art in the dark, this way everything flowed into fruition.

After lounging around for a few minutes, I said my farewells but was stopped by a few words that hit me like a hot flash: “Move to Brooklyn and make a movie with Spike Lee because that’s the vibe I totally get from you.”

My thank-you spewed out in short, choppy squeals; I couldn’t believe she’d said that!

No, I hadn’t gotten my hand on s’mores or defeated any villains hiding in “eerie lakes” or vacant cabins, but I had become my own lion heart. In these interviews, I was giving these artists (on their everyday hustle and bustle to make a living) an outlet to exceed their own work— a voice, this voice allowing them to express verbally what they had dedicated their lives too. The sun, this time hitting the reflections of my black platforms, followed me home. Camp Kentuck 2015 was over and done.


Blue Presidents and Wire Rabbits

I usually think of an art festival being held in a classy, Victorian building with the work of professional, world-renowned artists inside. Located in a heavily forested park covered in pine straw and dead leaves, The Kentuck Festival of the Arts was unlike any of my perceptions. Since 1971, this gem – whose name comes from the original name of the town when it was settled in 1813 –  has attracted artists to Northport, Alabama. The festival acquired its nationwide fame through a focus on folk art, which gained popularity in the ’70s.

Kentuck Park is set up in an odd oval, shaped more like spilled water than a nationally known art festival, with artists in white tents lining the grassy area along a dirt path, each identified by a letter and number on a sheet of colored paper at the top of the tent. A playground is situated in the middle of the park, with a tie-dye demonstration to its left, and Kentuck’s information building stands between the gate and the playground.

When we arrived, I was delighted by the music – Americana, bluegrass, jug band, Southern rock, and Delta blues – and the distinct smells of cinnamon, Mediterranean sausage, and freshly made funnel cakes wafting from local food trucks. With so many white tents and amazing artists to choose from, it was hard for me to determine where to start.  Traveling counter clockwise along the worn-down dirt path, I searched the sea of people to find an artist that caught my eye.

20151017_101845A mixed media artist from Hawkinsville, Georgia was kind enough to give me a few minutes of her time.  A retired special education teacher, Miz Thang‘s sandy blonde hair graced her denim ball cap while sporting a bright tie-dye shirt, paint-spattered blue jeans, and equally chromatic sneakers. She explained that she “always had a thing for colors” and “loved how colorful and free flowing they were.”  She also told me she has always been into art and started doing her own in the early 1990s.  She has attended the festival since 1998 and justified that by stating, “I love that it’s outside and it’s always great weather here.”

Miz Thang informed me that the theme of her art changes every so often.  “Last year I was into wild women, this year it was the blues and the circus.”

When I asked about her name she said, “I was at a show in Scottsdale and I have an enamel tabletop with this curvy, voluptuous woman named Miz Thang. And when people passed by they said ‘Oh yeah, that’s you.’ And I just said yeah, it is me.”

20151017_101301As I started to leave, two of her paintings begged for my attention: one of the presidents and the other of their first ladies— all painted blue! The presidents, just like their first ladies, were in an oval surrounding the White House. Miz Thang told me,  “It was really fun doing the research for this project.  William Taft got stuck in the bathtub and Barack Obama collects Spiderman comics.  It was even more fun researching the first ladies than it was the actual presidents.”

After browsing Miz Thang’s tent one last time before leaving, I stopped to talk with Ruth Robinson, a mixed media artist with a story to tell— well, many stories actually. A short, soft-spoken woman, Robinson is from Grand Bay, Alabama, though she has family in Tuscaloosa. Her style focuses on African American culture and her religious background, which is clear in her depictions of dark faces and people dressed in robes.

“All of my works are from real life experiences; people I have known, things I have done, and places I have gone,” Robinson said about her works, which are mostly created from ancient wood. “This one here is actually about how we used to ride on my grandfather’s tractor when we were younger,” she said pointing to one.

Further down the trail, the artwork of Josh Cote nearly grabbed me and swung me over to his tent!  The Bakersville, North Carolina native rocked blonde dreads to the middle of his back and sported a dapper all-black suit. Cote is a well-spoken man who cares about how his art is represented.  The style of his wire sculptures based on animal figures recreates foot-long ants and monkeys life-like in height and features. He chose to work with wire mainly because “[i]t stands out, and it’s so unique.”  It can take him hours to months to complete one piece of work, depending on how elaborate it is.

This was Cote’s third year at the festival. He comes back because “[i]t’s a great festival and has a great variety of artwork.”

The Kentuck festival isn’t limited to individual artists.  There were college groups also there to display, demonstrate, and sell their work.  Crimson Clay is a group of students from the University of Alabama who focus on ceramic creations.

One student, Jenna Cape, told me,  “I did some pottery in high school and this is my second year in the program.  I’m actually a fourth generation potter, but my family didn’t want to tell me until they knew that I was really interested.”

There was so much humanity at Kentuck that I almost forgot I was at an art festival. Some artists took so much pride in their work that they seemed to forget how to interact with people. The artists I spoke to cared what I thought of their art, and of them as people.  Whether you come for the outrageous artwork or enchanting blues tunes, one thing is clear: no matter where you are from , you won’t be disappointed.