For the past forty-five years, the Kentuck Festival of the Arts has been held in Northport, Alabama; and for the past two years, I’ve gone to experience the festival’s culture of Southern folk art. With over two hundred artists – including our very own photography magnet – and categories ranging from metal to fiber and everything in between, the festival is a melting pot of artistic expression.
No matter what direction you look, there will always be something that makes you want to stop and conjure up a deeper meaning behind the art— whether there will be one or not. The festival as a whole is simply eclectic, with each stark white tent containing something substantial that makes up one part of the festival. Almost blending in with the worn-out mulch, and crunching underneath wandering feet, the leaves still fell from the trees like it was any other autumn, despite this year’s Indian summer. The smell of inevitable sticky messes came from various food trucks and lemonade stands. Folk musicians and their accompanying instruments made a low, constant sound throughout the festival, like the humming of the TV in a living room, giving it a home-like feeling.
With his apron on as if he were in the shop and a neutral expression drawn across his face, I watched Ben Caldwell speak knowledgeably about his work with a potential customer. Talking with his hands and smiling with his eyes, he informed the woman about how she could order things online and specifics about his metals. After a few minutes of observation, I got a chance to get a better understanding of Caldwell’s philosophy on art, and on his work in general.
Molding metal into modern home furnishings, jewelry, and sculptures, yet still capturing some sense of warmth without making it seem clinical, Caldwell creates art. His belief that art needs not only to be beautiful, but also have functionality can clearly be seen in his creations. Being able to interact with art is something that Caldwell treasures. When asked what his current favorite piece of his own was, he almost immediately turned around and while pointing said, “That one back there. That’s my new favorite.” It was a deep, copper bowl being balanced on handcrafted, grayish-white deer antlers with a little note card dangling from one of them. Beautiful yet functional.
Terry Tally could be called the foundation of Caldwell’s career. Caldwell’s father, who was a collector of silver, and Terry, who was a silversmith, bonded over the material and soon became friends, learning from and mentoring each other. When the idea of being trained by Tally was proposed to Caldwell in 1999, he quit his job as an instrument maker and immediately began working for Tally. With the combination of being a fast learner and having a passion, a few years down the line Caldwell opened up his own metal shop known as Ben and Lael Inc. – the “Lael” part coming from his supportive wife – for crafting pieces of silver and copper into things that seem too pretty to touch— but you can because they were made to use.
In addition to metal working, Ben Caldwell does oil paintings on the side. He spoke about the matter with contentment in his voice, saying that he values the hobby very much because it’s completely separate from his work. Not in a sense where his work is draining or boring, but just in a way where he has something to do that doesn’t necessarily hold any standards or responsibility.
With the option to custom-order on his website, Caldwell has the opportunity to create things that he wouldn’t necessarily have thought of himself. When I asked him about the most outrageous request he’s gotten, Caldwell responded, “I recently had someone commission me to make an old-fashioned warming table out of solid copper. It was a copying of one that used to be in the White House, and they had taken a picture of it.” With pride in his voice he finalized the statement with a firm, “ . . . So I made a solid copper, old-fashioned warming table.”
“Rose-gold” has held the same level of relevancy in the past year as the 2016 election. The color is in clothing, home decor, makeup and even technology. Essentially, it is copper with the slightest of pink undertones but everyone acts like it’s something revolutionary (including myself). I was curious to see if the trend had made its way as far as high-end artwork . . . and it has: I was having to stop myself from calling the classic metal “rose-gold” multiple times out of respect for the metal maker. Caldwell informed me that people have been paying more attention to his work, and to copper as a whole, because of its newfound popularity. He quickly noted that he was on-board all along by adding, “I was copper before copper was a trend.”
Before discovering that his heart belonged to metal, Caldwell made custom guitars and drums for a living— or lack thereof. If that had been what he was showcasing at Kentuck, I still would have wanted to interview him. The process seems like it’d be an extremely difficult one, yet still cherishable. The craft reminds me of something you’d look back on and have cravings, and fond memories of, like your first lover or that large fry from last night.
I posed this simple question: “Do you ever miss making instruments?”
He looked off to the side, and contorted his face a bit. “Um, once in awhile . . . my daughter is a musician, and she says ‘Dad, I want to make a guitar with you!’ And that’s hard to do ’cause I don’t have my guitar-making shop set up. And so when she says that I . . . I kind of long to do it. But other than that I don’t miss it.”
This answer hung in the air with me, even after I’d moved on to other questions. If he still made guitars, they would obviously be functional and he could be creating something beautiful with his daughter, adding his own principle to it.
Welding pieces together to create something that holds its own beauty and functionality, Kentuck mimics Caldwell’s philosophy by lacing together each artist to produce a melting pot of Southern culture.