Alabama’s artsy side often stays hidden, not quite accepted by older generations, and a lot of people probably doubt that the state even has an artsy side, but after going to Kentuck, an art festival held just outside Tuscaloosa, I discovered that there are plenty of artists here—some just don’t speak up. The festival isn’t only for the locals, though. Artists from all over the country come down to get a chance to showcase and sell their work in a place where people are truly interested in it, where people really care, and where they shouldn’t feel so irrevocably out of place.
I came looking for something extravagant – giant bunnies made of wire riding motorcycles, or an adventitious teepee that towered over all the standard booths – but the first booth to draw me in had only pictures hanging up. I didn’t expect to be so intrigued by two-dimensional pictures. So one of the first things I learned at Kentuck was: Pictures can be extravagant. An artist can make anything mean something, and I realized that as I spoke to Beth Conklin, the artist behind those compelling pictures.
The picture that first brought me into Conklin’s booth showed a woman with a beehive on her head. She held her hands over her ears, as if drowning out the noise of the many bees swarming around her. When I talked to Conklin about it, she explained to me that she used her computer to create all the pictures I was seeing, and on that particular one, she had to cut out each bee (and there must have been well over fifty bees) from a separate image she found and then place it on her new piece. When she had to do something like that, the art took much longer to make, but some of her other works could be finished in an hour.
Since Conklin is a stay-at-home mom, she found that she has a lot of time on her hands while her daughter is at school, and that’s when she gets to work on her digital art. Her inspiration comes from quotes she finds in songs or books. Everything she makes comes with the quote that, I think, can be traced back to her thoughts and her life.
Beth Conklin isn’t a very loud talker, and she didn’t quite like getting her picture taken. Her art is her way of expressing herself without having to do those things.
The second booth I stopped at . . . I walked by it once before deciding the artist was someone I was going to talk to. Just by glancing at them, I thought they were paintings, but the second time around one caused me to get a closer look. I saw a Pillsbury dough boy, smiling so big it was creepy, and holding his hands up as if he was shouting to the sky. It read, ‘Everything will kill you’, and, being a bit of a pessimist, I find the cynical art to be the best. It almost looked like chalk, just black and white, but once I stood right in front of it, I saw the 3-D aspect of it—the layers.
When I spoke to Kent Ambler, the artist, he told me that he made it, as well as all his other pieces, out of wood. He explained the process, that he had to cut out each layer of wood to create his art. For one of his pieces that I looked at, there were many colors, which meant many layers, which meant much more time went into it. For the Pillsbury piece, there were only two colors, which meant two layers, which meant less time.
I learned from Ambler that when it comes to art, I can’t just glance at it and understand it. It takes talking to the people behind the work to appreciate it. The first time I passed Ambler’s booth, I saw something simple, but when I moved in, got a closer look, and took a minute to speak to him, I found out it was so much more complex.
The last man I spoke to at the festival was Leroy Campbell. His booth captured my attention because of the 3-D art he had on display. He used found objects to bring life to his paintings, which were nostalgic of the Harlem Renaissance era and all had a jazzy style to them. Most of my time in his booth was spent in front of a painting of several people, all gathered around a bar, having a few drinks. They seem happy, though they have no eyes or noses, only mouths. The frame it was in was taken from an old piano, and at the bottom are piano keys. This and the setting gave it its title, Piano Bar.
Campbell explained that, although his art is focused on the past, he uses it as a way to live in the present. “Past and future can stifle you,” he said. He believes that we should all live in the present, and never become too occupied with the past, because when it comes down to it, right now is all we will ever have.
When I spoke to Campbell, his passion for his paintings shined through, and I saw that he put pieces of himself into every one he created. That’s where the passion comes from, and that’s what makes all the work worth it. It makes it mean something.
Kentuck changed the way I think about art, because it’s not just a museum. I didn’t just see the work. I saw the people behind it. To me, that made all the difference. Suddenly, I cared so much more about it all. It wasn’t that I had to stop at any booths, but that I wanted to. In the end that’s what an artist is looking for, people who will stop and take a look at the art that they’ve put the best of themselves in. I found out quickly that in most cases, their art is them. It speaks for them when they can’t find a way to speak for themselves, and that’s why we need to listen.