"Art was not separate from everyday experience."

I spent over two hours of pure joy and pleasure this weekend drinking in an exhibit that told its story with folk art: hand crafted chairs, cotton-picking plows and tools, buttons made of sea mussels, the most enormous mortar and pestle I've ever seen, Victorian- and African-inspired quilt motifs. I can't remember the last time I left a museum in such a giddy rush. I went to the Atlanta History Center for the sole purpose of visiting their many exhibits--for the first time in my life. This is really sad, considering I have a degree in history, I'm earning a master's student studying museums, and I've lived in Atlanta for more than five years. In my defense, I've been there once to see one specific exhibit, and we also got a tour of the innards of the place, including their giant holdings areas down below where they keep the collection pieces that are not on display in exhibits. I have also been to their Kenan Research Center on several occasions for research purposes. But this was my first time going to meander my way through their permanent and temporary exhibitions.

I knew I needed to pick one to highlight for yet another assigned exhibit review for a class (this makes about the fifth review I've done), but I didn't really go in thinking of any one in particular--especially not, for some reason, the folk art exhibit, which I'd heard one or a few classmates discuss before but never given much thought. But this semester, I'm taking a class on Material Culture, on the things we adorn with a human touch, and make with a purpose, be it necessity, pleasure, tool, comfort or any other reason we have to create something. In the wake of this summer's interior design class, I already feel that I am more aware of the conscious designs and historical components surrounding aesthetic, style, and the use of the things around us.

The first two weeks of class already have me thinking even harder about the things we design, make, buy, use, sell, throw away, repurpose. It was truly serendipitous that after a few other galleries, I wandered over to the Shaping Traditions: Folk Art in a Changing South gallery while deciding where next to spend my time. I had been planning to review a different exhibit, for a different class than Material Culture, but here it was in front of me, and there on the introductory panel was John Burrison, a professor at my school and friend of many of my professors, in a photograph with some of the pieces in the collection. I had a memory flashback and realized that I remembered learning that most of this collection--thousands of items--was his--he had been collecting southern folk art since the 1970s, and turned his collection and his lifetime of knowledge on folklife into an exhibit--a stunning and approachable work in itself.

There on the same panel was a name that suddenly meant a lot to me: Henry Glassie. I had only just finished reading one of his books for my class, his 1968 classic within the folklife field, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. I got really excited, and from there, it was several hours later before I noticed how much time I had been spending at each panel, examining each piece of folk craft, studying the selection of photos that accompanied throughout.

My favorite part, obviously really, was the section devoted entirely to southern textiles, quilts, motifs, and influential styles. The designers came up with a truly ingenious method to display and preserve the six quilts within the exhibit: each one rolled out on its own giant display board, once prompted by a visitor who pushes a button--which sits below a description of the type, material, quilter, and estimated year of creation. I must have pushed those buttons more than a dozen times, engrossed in their pattern and fabric choices, old as they were. Each was so beautiful, and they combined to tell a distinctly diverse story of the variety of quilting styles and influences that play into southern quilting.

(Read on for a bit more about the themes of the exhibit; it's worth a few minutes!)

The exhibit was consciously created to revolve around its stunning artifacts, to tell the larger story of the relationship between folk craft and folk art in past and present southern life. The overarching thesis the exhibit aims to impress upon visitors is that there has been both continuity and change in southern folk art, and that the relationship within it—southerners and their handmade products—is an important component in the history of the South.

Subthemes arise when we look more closely at the organization of the exhibit, where the story begins to unfold. The exhibit is organized by subtheme, taking us through the various conversations, one stacked on another, that the curator wishes to share with us. The first message the curator needs to convey is a working definition of what “folk arts” are, which is explained in a number of display cases, via brief panel text, but more through the artifacts that have been selected to prove each specific piece of the definition. Folk Arts, we learn, are many things: they are learned traditionally; they are important community resources; they bring the past into the present; they are adaptable and flexible in shifts of human need; they can be both useful and beautiful; they are handmade in an inherited tradition passed down through generations. These axioms are expressed through a number of specific artifacts: homemade violins using both wood and metal pieces, or woven baskets that have more recently been woven with plastic pieces, or pieces that illustrate handmade characteristics against those of uniform, factory-made pieces.

The second subtheme moves us into the active use of folk arts in everyday life, reminding us that traditional, preindustrial southern culture did not draw a clear line between art and work—but that both were intertwined in each activity—sewing, farming, and cooking included. The exhibit addresses what makes southern folk art “southern” by discussing the interaction of European, Native American, and African cultural groups, and by telling the story of southerner’s lives: living off the land, and using hand-crafted tools to aid them. The third subtheme brings folk art home, in southern living spaces and decorative aesthetics; this includes an enormous section displaying domestic arts past and present, including some present-day artists—pottery, baskets, chairs, furniture, and textiles. The last subthemes take southern life “beyond subsistence”—into leisure activities, and finally, to the revitalization and change that has taken place since industrialization revolutionized the South.

Modern-day artists and immigrant groups who have added their cultural traditions to the South in the last half century are featured near the end of the exhibit space, proving that folk art in the region, while no longer necessary for our work or daily life essentials, is still an important part of our cultural lives; we are surrounded by the artistry and traditional techniques of those who continue to practice and pass on our folk arts. Shaping Traditions tells this story through the objects that define the subject.

Go see it.

Telling stories without paper: human voices and created objects

Without realizing it earlier, this semester I am in two courses that I have been extremely excited to take, and that both deal with forms of historical evidence that are neither paper nor text. The Document is the historian's love, her bread and butter, that which is often the basis of entire projects, which turn into the articles, tomes, textbooks, and popular history books that everyone else reads. In public history classes, though, it is a simple truth that the regular person goes to museums not to read lots of label text and long passages that, though their stories may be astonishing, do involve more words. No, they most often go to see the things that make history come to life for them. Artifacts, small and large, can often be so powerful, say so much with no words. And this is where my classes are taking me. The emphasis in Material Culture is obvious: the objects, created or altered somehow by man, that offer insight into customs, social patterns, lifestyles, foodways, and larger culture of the people of our past.

So too do I find this in Oral History, the other aforementioned class, where our discussions, readings, and projects revolve around the spoken word, in a historical context, and using a proper methodology that puts it far beyond casual conversation. In conducting oral histories, we are formally and methodically documenting the past, in ways that effect immensely both the narrator (the subject) and the interviewer (me).

I find both of these mediums so powerful. I conducted two oral histories earlier this year, after a one-class-period crash course in one of my other classes, and while they were on two very different topics, I discovered the many nuances that oral historians have been raving about since the 1960s; one of the most significant to me was the unexpected paths the interview can take, and also the candidness of my narrators. By asking very simple questions and then shutting my damn mouth, it was astonishing what stories they would tell me, without my ever having to ask them something provocative or controversial. Not that the primary goal is provocative information, not at all. But, for example, I was interviewing a couple in the late forties who have a young daughter they adopted from Guatemala, and there were a lot of delicate and sensitive subjects I wanted to broach with them, like whether or not they would someday tell her about her half-siblings that they knew she had back in Guatemala, or whether they would help her in finding her biological roots, if she ever wanted to know more about them. These were things I didn't think I would have the guts to ask. But I never needed to: the family was so welcoming and so willing to explore their complicated emotions on those subjects, via other more basic questions I had asked within the larger subject of their family and their relationship to Guatemala right now. I know this won't always be the case, and this is a topic I am continuing to work with, but it was an extraordinary first dive into the process, and into the revelations of what oral histories are, and what they do for larger historical projects you are producing.

And material culture, whose roots can be found across disciplines--archeology, folklore, sociology, history--has been enchanting academics in these fields for far longer than I have been alive to ponder its worth. I am not a natural at gleaning information and historical clues from innate objects the way I have been able to do with documents, even though, at their core, neither one is more or less equipped than the other to tell a story about the person who created it. Documents are not purveyors of truth any more than a three-dimensional object that lacks a description or context of any kind. Just because something has words on it, a handwritten letter, say, does not mean we can understand it any better upon finding it than we would a shard of porcelain. My goal this semester is to begin to better navigate and interpret our material past, in more nuanced ways than I have ever known or cared to explore.

Museum staffs, and so, museum exhibits, have as their goal the interpretation of the past, in a way that makes people look at their own lives and relate the past to them, to where they live, to those around them. This can be done very well with historical documents, presented in a cohesive manner, that tell a wonderful story. But, as soon as you add the human voice, and the objects created by men and women in that same story, you have brought the exhibit to life. You have succeeded in a more successful, effective way, in relating the story to your audience, and they will leave remembering it more clearly, and hopefully in a way that connects them to the past, to its utter humanity and enormity.

Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture, describes our relationship to things in our everyday life, and inspires us to think about them in more significant ways, as pieces that connect us to the larger humanity of the world. After all, if it as not us personally, someone created every single thing in our lives. That is a powerful thought. I leave you with the passion of his words, so inspiring and clearly telling, as he has spent his life studying the Things of People.

Among the new things, the most important, I believe, is the collection: the assembly of gifts, souvenirs, and commodities into a home--the domestic environment in contradistinction to the house. The collection represents a victory over disorder in industrial times, when the flood of goods threatens to sweep us to madness in a rising tide of irrelevant trash, just as the house of stone represented a victory over disorder in the days when people lived close to nature, when the lean wolves came down from the heath and the night winds wailed. But we should not be confused. Today, while we create things out of things made by other people, all across the globe, people in no way less real or alive are going up into the woods and down to the riverside. They are chopping out chunks of nature and fashioning artifacts that display their spirit and serve the serious needs of their neighbors.

Artistry in the world, in our work, in ourselves

"William Morris told us to cease thinking of art as the rarefied expression of a mystically talented few, or as the peculiar possession of rich men. He argued that work is the mother of art, directing our study to carpets as well as paintings, axes as well as statues, and he bade us consider our own work as a source of insight into the work of others. With him, we come to wish that the painter in the loft, the scholar at the desk, and the industrial laborer on the shop floor might know the joy of the peasant girl at the loom."

Material culture historian Henry Glassie reflects on the value of the world as an inspiration for art, and how artistry, at its core, comes from age-old trades. He takes us through the lifespan of a traditionally-made Turkish rug to illustrate this, and brings us back around to the very fact that he is writing about it, to ensure we understand that all manner of artistry, big and small, is a product of the creative soul of humankind.

The chapter I read today was a joyous revelation, a celebration, of the material as historical, as everything we can and hope to be, in what we create on this earth, with our hands, our patience, our inspiration, our minds.