It’s odd the roads to which inspiration leads. Sometimes it winds through turns, other times it’s like a glimpse onto parallel thoroughfares.
Let’s start with the opening reception for potter Charles Smith’s new show at the Mobile Museum of Art. For those familiar with this fixture of Mobile’s arts world, it was expected but no less amazing.
A sizable list of local collectors adorns one wall with thanks for pieces lent to the show. They aren’t the only Mobilians possessing Smith’s work and represent a tiny fraction of those who appreciate his expansive talent.
Smith put his creative urges to therapeutic work after a tour of duty in Vietnam. He earned a B.S. in art education with a minor in pottery from Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
After moving to Mobile, he became artist in residence for the city in 1977, painting murals and teaching classes. What he did in his own time is what earned him accolades as his profound pottery work began to crop up in traveling exhibits and heady arenas like the National Museum of American Art in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the American Craft Museum in New York City.
In the new exhibit, it’s easy to see this man’s genius on display. The novel concepts, the painstaking craftwork, the overall breadth of vision and task is both daunting and astounding.
As I chatted with a gallery owner and stalwart supporter of local arts, we agreed Smith is underappreciated. Sure, his work has moved around the nation some; sure, locals know and love him. But we concurred he deserves wider fame.
As is far, far too often the case with artists, once Smith slips the bounds of this existence his fame will balloon. His pieces will explode in value, moving into more and more prestigious collections. It’s just a shame he can’t get a bigger taste of it now while he’s here to enjoy it.
In a conversation with a museum staffer a few minutes later, those same thoughts resounded. That took us to an intersection with a street marked “overlooked and underappreciated artists,” where we turned northward.
We rode on the story of a mutual friend’s recent journey to Birmingham artist Joe Minter’s African Village in America, and the personal tour Minter gave him. I avoided a turn-off marked by my personal background in the same Magic City sector — it wasn’t “about me” — but it enhanced the view from my seat in the conversation.
Another detour took us into the topic of “naïve,” “folk” or “outsider” art and how labels are used as a tool to marginalize, denigrate and condescend. Among inherently social humans, there’s a subliminal stigma or suspicion associated with the term “outsider,” regardless of how much we claim to value innovation. We’ll take rebellion but only within parameters.
The morning following the reception, I opened my laptop to let the world come streaming in. It cranked the engine on the previous night’s conversation.
In a June 5 column, Birmingham News columnist John Archibald asked why local creative genius has been feted in larger cultural centers but failed to find the same acclaim in its home territory. In particular he referenced self-taught visual artist Thornton Dial’s appearance at a posh New York City eatery in the last few weeks.
The occasion was the Gordon Parks Foundation Awards and how Bessemer, Alabama-native Dial was honored along with Usher and Robert De Niro. Dial was saluted as a 20th century art pioneer and compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock.
What Archibald wanted to know was if the Metropolitan Museum of Art has 10 of Dial’s works in their collection and plans for his own featured exhibit next year, why the man can’t get as much love at home. He said Dial and his contemporaries are “better received in Montgomery and Mobile than around Birmingham.”
I’m not completely sure, but Archibald could start finding answers by asking his Mobile-based al.com colleagues, who have yet to cover said “better received” works of Dial, Minter and Lonnie Holley mere blocks from their office. The three are part of Alabama Contemporary Arts Center’s current exhibit “History Refused to Die,” viewable through December at 301 Conti St.
The show opened more than two months ago and until Monday had been the subject of just one 17-shot online photo gallery from the town’s oldest print media outlet. Until Monday, there had been no article, no review.
I agree with Archibald’s basic contention, but if little ol’ upstart Lagniappe has made the effort to give these “outsiders” some love when the exhibit opened, what was holding back the venerable Press-Register? Whose decision was that and why?
Maybe the road to widespread acceptance leads through all of us first. We don’t need a map to get there, just the urge to find new routes.
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