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The Art of Recycling in Southern Folk Traditions

February 23, 2011

Southern self-taught art is one of my favorite art traditions. This may be because I’m Southern, but it’s also because it brings up some interesting issues in regard to the spirituality of art, as well as the artist’s engagement with materials in their surrounding environment. In particular, it is the tendency to reuse or recycle materials that speaks most clearly to the spirituality of vernacular traditions and represents the artist’s ability to imagine and recognize beauty in the everyday. It throws up all of our preconceptions about what it means to be an artist in today’s world; the artist at the top of society on his aesthetic pedestal gives way to the hard-working and innovative common man who sees that there is more than meets the eye in most everything we encounter.

Different types of folk art use recycling of discarded materials as the basis for their aesthetic. Mixed media visual art, quilting, and yard art are just a few that come to mind. It can be anything from old bottles hung up to catch sunlight, quilts made from old work clothes, or elaborate sculptures made from old furniture, household items, scrap lumber or metal. Through their recycled art, self-taught artists make unique places where they can explore the issues of creativity, memory, the environment, and spirituality.

By encountering and re-purposing materials that would otherwise be thrown away, artists are giving them new life and maintaining the memories that might be associated with a particular object. Old furniture from a loved one’s home made into a make-shift planter or sculpture keeps the memory of that person alive. Furthermore, it gives artists room to explore how humans affect their environment, creating something of “useful beauty” out of what might be left in a landfill.

What is possibly most interesting about the Southern folk art tradition is its religious aspect, the spiritual striving that defines so much of the poor origins that many of these artists come from. Thornton Dial, in his Creation Story, suggests the intersection between the act of recycling and the act of creation.[1] It suggests the spiritual significance of using discarded, rejected, or otherwise useless materials. In this work, he uses clothing, carpet, steel, enamel, spray paint, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood. A collection of “trash” becomes a new way of looking at the world. One commentator describes it as a “mythic ‘creation story’” in which the ability to find uses for even the smallest scraps has defined the real-world virtuosity of black women and men through generations of make-do living conditions.[2] This work in particular was inspired by the quilts and quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who also convey a “make-do moral imperative” in their art.[3] What perhaps began as the absolute need to use and reuse whatever one had became a symbol of overcoming adversity and spiritual struggle. It is the sign of the fact that hard times breed spiritual growth and the fact that one can always be made new. This making new is at the heart of the Southern folk art aesthetic. We are reminded that we can participate in the making new of creation with Christ by encountering the good, the moral, and the beautiful in the everyday objects of life.


[1] Arnett, Paul and Eugene W. Metcalf Jr., ed. Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and Beyond. Atlanta, Tinwood Books, 2006, 38.

[2] Mary Lee Bendoph, Gee’s Bend Quilts and Beyond, 60.

[3] Arnett, Paul et. Al., ed. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Altanta: Tinwood Books, 2006, 68.

Photo credits:

Bottle tree yard art: http://greenopolis.com/goblog/green-groove/10-odd-examples-recycled-yard-art

Thornton Dial, “Creation Story.”  http://www.flickr.com/photos/soulsgrowndeep/page5/

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2011 4:03 pm

    Jenn,

    This is a wonderful post – thanks for sharing. I also have a great admiration for this sort of folk art and two excellent specimen that you might be interested in are not far from my birthplace:
    http://www.wattstowers.us/
    http://www.salvationmountain.us/

  2. Jim permalink*
    February 23, 2011 11:16 pm

    Thanks for this post, Jenn! I also find the practice of recycling and reappropriation in art is suggestive of redemption. Thanks for pointing out some great examples.

    I hope this isn’t too picky, but I was intrigued by your first sentence: “Souther self-taught art is one of my favorite art traditions.” It struck me that “self-taught art,” almost by definition, can’t really be a tradition. The word “tradition” usually implies some handing down of knowledge or technique. Maybe a self-taught art tradition is possible in the minimal sense of particular “self-taught artists” encouraging others to be “self-taught artists”?

    Also, this question about “self-taught art” and tradition led me to wonder whether Thorton Dial’s painting isn’t influenced by abstract expressionism. His painting bares some resemblance to a Jackson Pollock, but even more to some by Willem de Kooning. All of this actually makes me wonder what “self-taught” refers to, and if it isn’t simply a convenient label for those who do not receive their education through an institution? Any thoughts?

    • Jenn Craft permalink*
      March 8, 2011 11:52 am

      Jim, thanks for your comment and I apologize for letting it slip through cracks, making my reply so late! You’re right about the first sentence. I guess I used that phrase for lack of better wording… maybe “genre” of art would have been better? Although, on the other hand, self-taught/folk/outsider/vernacular art has become quite popular in the past few decades, and a lot of the scholarship on it looks at the ways in which local traditions, actions, and values are passed down between generations. Would that make it more of an “art tradition”? I’m not sure.

      I see the resemblance between Dial’s work and Pollock’s. I’ve thought about this question a lot lately in relation to the quilts of Gee’s Bend bearing resemblance to modernist artwork. I think this is at least part of the answer: Most of the African-American aesthetic can be traced back to their roots in Africa. So when they were brought over as slaves they brought those traditions with them and continued to create work based on these designs (though they’ve been modified over time of course.) In the mid-20th century in modern art, there was move toward “primitivism” in art and there was lot of interest in African designs and objects (Picasso, Matisse, Minimalist art more generally). So they were, in a sense going back to the same aesthetic that African-Americans had been implementing for years. So when art critics say that Gees Bend quilts look like a Paul Klee painting (which they do a lot of the time!), it is because the same aesthetic is being referred to, just from two different angles. One is the angle of an African-American woman who is “self-taught” and drawing on generations of quilt patterns and techniques passed down from family. The other is an upper-middle class white male who studied painting and is drawing on a foreign design aesthetic that he finds particularly inspiring. I’m not judging either, but I think maybe we should give more credit to the aesthetic developed out of local traditions rather than assuming they are copying more famous high modern art. (This could be argued in the case of African American jazz music and dance styles, too).

      I’m extremely sympathetic to “vernacular” art such as this, which may skew my opinion a little, and I recognize that. But sometimes I think it is dismissed too quickly as being second rate to high modern art.

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