Walking into the hodgepodge of artwork by over two hundred creative craftspeople, the visual delights at the 44th annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts held in Northport, Alabama ranged from ornate pottery to whimsical metalwork, from grave photos to joyous paintings, from grand creations (with grand price tags) to the smallest, minute figurines. Coming annually to Kentuck Park on the third weekend of October, the festival delivers a powerful punch, with the participants dealing the haymaker. The glorious eye-candy, pulled off by all of the artists, can be exemplified by four craftspeople: Jake Asuit, Frank Saggus, Robert “Dr. Bob” Shaffer, and Linda Bachman. I talked to these amazing people, all working in different media, in order to grasp a sense of the festival’s variety.
Extreme handyman Jake Asuit of Jake 2 Jake Custom Knives has a “never say die” mentality and believes he is a hard worker, which can be seen in his unorthodox creation of expertly crafted hunting knives. With his son as an observer, he has been working on the deadly utensils for seven years.
His work has been “fast and furious,” although it takes, on average, twenty-four to thirty hours to make a knife, exemplifying his diligent personality. Although the pastime started him on his craft, he no longer hunts; his heart “grew soft about ten years ago” when he was watching a deer on a hunting expedition; “I’m done. I can’t do it anymore […] even though I love the meat.” Although he admits that he may not be the best knife maker, he asserts that he may be the most unique. From beginning to end, he does all his own coloring, leathering, heat treating, tempering, and everything else involved in creating his knives.
Frank Saggus, approachable and appealing, works with a less deadly but equally fascinating craft: birdhouses. When asked about his favorite birdhouse, it’s either “the one [he’s] just finished, or one [he’s] never done before.” For about twenty years, he has been making (and selling) birdhouses from parts such as hedge-clippers, parking meters, and instruments. Their sizes range from “seven feet tall and eight inches square” to about “twelve inches tall and six inches square.”
Saggus makes birdhouses because he “likes birds in his yard,” and makes only birdhouses – he is currently trying to expand – because he “simply loves birds” and also likes to use discarded materials to create new things. Saggus told me jokingly that he considered selling his art with the comical tagline: “making crap you don’t need out of crap you’ve thrown away!” Now his tagline is “birdhouses with personality.”
Robert “Dr. Bob” Shaffer, mayhaps the most (charmingly) unusual person I met, has been going to Kentuck for fifteen years. He works with materials like metal, barrel tops and fence posts, canvas, tambourines and wood, and, most famously, bottle caps, which he started working with when he first began making art professionally. When going to art shows, his work would get scratched while being transported, so he started putting the bottle caps on the borders to keep them pristine. People ended up liking the addition, so he continued with a wide array of bottle caps, some of which are no longer made. His two favorite pieces are seven-foot works (made of architectural house pieces) of “Onion-head” and the “Honey Island Swamp Monster,” both with stories of Louisianan origin, taking about a year and thousands of bottle caps to make.
Shaffer has taught elementary schoolchildren how to make art, and, only a few days prior to our conversation, the White House specifically requested a piece of his work to be a backdrop for Mrs. Michelle Obama’s speech, proving the reach of his work. Dr. Bob looks at his work as “a struggle every day, but a good struggle.” He believes that “you don’t have to be an artist to make art. You just gotta do it. […] It’s like jumping off a cliff: when you do it, you gotta do it, or you’re gonna hit bottom.”
Finally, Linda Bachman, a gentle soul with a pretty face, has been working with wood, alongside her husband Rick, for about thirty years. The work is all handmade with kinetic properties; the works are interactive, with a simple push or a pull completely changing the meaning of the art.
The longest step in the process is design; “every one of our pieces starts with a piece of paper and a pencil, and my husband starts with drawing what he envisions. From that, he blows it up to life-size […] and then we make a template or a pattern and he does all of the woodworking and all of the design and assembly, and then he sends it to me, which I do all of the painting.”
Their largest creations take about a week. Her favorite work is titled “Puppy Love,” which is the work in the picture with her, because it represents “fun and playfulness in life.” She describes her work as “fun, playful, creative, and universal […] we attract the youngest of kids to the oldest of people.”
Her final thoughts with me were: “I think everybody is artistic in one form or another. We hear a lot from people that say, ‘Boy, I wish I could do this or I was artistic,’ and I think that everybody really is, it’s just finding what you’re artistic with.”
From dog-decorated wood to birdhouses personifying portmanteaus, from knives with a soft side to bottle caps with a story, Kentuck’s wide assortment of art is much like glittery confetti at a celebration: throwing it up in the air causes a jumble of silly shades and sparkly shapes to rain down and decorate the air. Although it might be a bit hard to comprehend all of the colors and the movement, it is enjoyable anyway, and makes the celebration memorable.