Discover the South's Finest Folk Art

These regional works are fun, affordable, and oh-so-Southern. Here are some of the artists you'll find in your own backyard.
Karen Lingo

For more photos of artists and their work, see our slide show.

Figures dance from Woodie Long's brush. Curving like eighth notes across the painting, a line of jazz players appears in quick, sure strokes, leaning into the rhythms that play in Woodie's mind.

Like many self-taught Southern folk artists, Woodie Long has never studied perspective or practiced drawing perfect pears for a still life. His paintings, instead, come from memory, enriched with images from the past. They range from his years growing up in the small-town South to recent trips to New York and New Orleans. In one of his paintings, children float in midair, caught in a high-spirited moment bouncing on their grandmother's bed. In another, flowers explode in a symphony of extravagant colors. Woodie's paintings are spontaneous, heartfelt, and deeply personal--the kind of art that some people might find too unpolished or somehow outlandish. But his pieces--and those by artists like him--represent one of today's most popular genres of visual art.

Accessible and Affordable
Many of the best-known folk artists in the country hail from the South. They create art with an astounding array of materials--everything from canvas to cardboard, from clay to wood. Their works are shaped by experience and filled with a passion that sometimes steps over into spirituality--and in some cases even into eccentricity.

Eccentric or not, plenty of those works have found homes in chic New York galleries, in museum shops, and on the walls of celebrity hangouts. The truth is, though, neither the artists nor their art is out of reach for everyday collectors. In many cases you can buy straight from the artists. Another plus: Folk art, despite its growing popularity, remains surprisingly affordable.

Sure, gallery prices can be steep for works by famous folk artists no longer living. Prices can even climb into the four- and five-figure range for early works by today's most celebrated folk artists, such as Thornton Dial, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, and Mose Tolliver. Still, their recent works go for far less.

Depending on the size, the medium, and the artist, you can purchase truly good folk art at bargain prices. For instance, Alabama artist Chris Clark sells his small painted quilts for as little as $100. Wood carvings by Dallas artist Isaac Smith can be had for $50 and up. Paintings by Bernice Sims start at $150. The small florals by Woodie Long go for $175. Paintings by emerging artist Michael Banks sell for less than $1,000. Works by painter and carver Billy Roper begin at $150, and large pottery roosters by artist Charlie West begin around $300. Other artists offer a variety of pieces for equally reasonable sums. It's just a matter of finding the ones that speak to your heart.

Stories To Tell
Many folk artists spent much of their lives doing something else. Their stories are often as fascinating as their art. Woodie Long, for instance, spent 25 years painting houses. When his health no longer allowed him to do that, he picked up his wife's art brushes and found a whole new life.

Woodie counts artists Jimmie Lee Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, and Bernice Sims among his best friends. He and his wife are especially close to Bernice, an amazing lady who began painting after rearing six children.

Memories and Marches
A small sign in front of a house on a quiet street in Brewton, Alabama, reads simply "Folk Artist." Inside, Bernice Sims paints scenes of children playing in old swimming holes and of churches filled with people in their Sunday best. But it's the images depicting fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma that have brought Bernice the most recognition.

"I paint what I grew up with," she says. "I watched the Civil Rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but I didn't take part in it because I had children to take care of."

Bernice started taking classes at the local junior college after her children were grown, but, she recalls, "I couldn't paint the way the art teacher wanted. I said I'd just quit, but he told me to go ahead and paint what I wanted to, so I sat off in a corner and did my little funny people."

Those little funny people have captured the memories and the imaginations of people all over the country.

Critters of Clay and Wood
They're of different generations and live hundreds of miles apart, but Isaac Smith and Charlie West both create birds and animals from nature's materials.

From Charlie's hands come the exquisite pottery roosters. He started throwing pots while in high school, working part-time at a local pottery in Gillsville, Georgia. "I lived in an apartment above the barn, and I'd go out at night and play on the wheel," he recalls. He later went to work at another North Georgia pottery. "Someone asked if I could make a chicken," he says. He's been creating folk pottery since 1996. Roosters are his specialty, but he has fashioned clay into everything from face jugs and fruit to a pig that's treasured by his 5-year-old daughter.

Isaac Smith finds his animals in pieces of wood and sets them free with a chain saw and hatchet. In the backyard of his South Dallas home, stacks of logs and tree branches wait to be turned into a host of critters.

Isaac was born in Winnsboro, Louisiana. "When I was a kid, we'd go out in the woods, and I'd look at the animals God had made. If I could get my hands on them, I'd turn them over and upside down to look at the spots and everything."

Years later, when he left his job at an airplane manufacturing company, he turned to carving and his knowledge of animals. "I carved two monkeys, took them to a gallery, and sold both of them," he says.

Collectors now call and request specific animals. When that happens, all Isaac has to do is go out and find the critters in one of his woodpiles.

Carved in Stone...and Wood
Billy Roper started carving things in stone when he was growing up in North Georgia. When he got older he made his living as a woodworker. Now he works in both stone and wood, coaxing forms from marble and carving wood into masks and totems. He also paints, with subjects ranging from his own uniquely stylistic florals to intricate scenes filled with animals, figures, and plants.

Each of Billy's works tells a story. He writes his feelings and thoughts about the subject on the back of the paintings, sometimes covering the entire back, in a stream of consciousness that pours from the heart.

Never-ending Invention
Michael Banks has created a stir in the art world since he drove up to the Marcia Weber / Art Objects in Montgomery, Alabama, a little over a year ago with a carload of paintings. "I just don't take on many new artists," Marcia says. "But I took one look at Michael's work and said, 'Wow.' "

Asked about what influenced his painting, Michael says, "I always liked to draw, and I grew up in the projects, where anything bright and promising was encouraged."

Michael's work is an exciting step in the evolution of folk art. He describes what he does as "pure expressionism. It's never-ending invention." His primary medium is acrylics on wood or canvas, but each painting has a little oil in it as well. "It gives it a texture that I like," he says.

More Than a Quilt
Chris Clark's studio space could pass for a work of art. Chairs studded with soft drink caps, gaily painted tennis shoes, and walking sticks adorned with everything from shells to feathers fill the corners and spill out into the center of the room.

"I started painting on wood and chairs, pretty much any surface I could find because I didn't have any canvas," Chris says. "I just loved painting on stuff."

Eventually he began painting on the quilts his grandmother taught him to make. "I'd always admired my grandmother's quilts," he says. "I just added stories to mine."

Chris didn't realize what he was doing was folk art until Georgine Clarke, visual arts program manager for the Alabama State Council on the Arts, came to visit. "I was painting things because I liked to," Chris says. "Can you imagine doing it and not knowing it was art?"

That's the beauty of folk art. It's pure creative passion that comes from the heart and soul.

To reach the artists featured

Michael Banks: Guntersville, AL; (256) 878-3174.
Chris Clark: Birmingham, AL; (205) 785-5457 or (205) 223-4804.
Woodie Long: Santa Rosa Beach, FL; (850) 231-1783 or 1-800-613-7966.
Billy Roper: Jasper, GA; broper3@ aol.com.
Bernice Sims: Brewton, AL; (251) 867-2441.
Isaac Smith: Dallas, TX; (214) 375-7432.
Charlie West: Cleveland, GA; (706) 865-6449.

Where To Find More Folk Art
You'll find folk art in the collections of most regional and many local museums. You can purchase it from individual artists, in galleries that specialize in folk art, and at art festivals across the South. Here are some of our favorite places to look.

Best Museum Shop
The Kentucky Folk Art Center has a fantastic collection of works by more than 90 artists from the Bluegrass State. The Museum Store displays and sells works by many of the same artists represented in the museum. Among our favorites are the carved and brightly painted chickens by Calvin Cooper. The museum is located at 102 West First Street, Morehead, Kentucky; (606) 783-2204 or www.kyfolkart.org.

Favorite Folk Art Galleries
The Funky Chicken Art Project, housed in an old chicken house in the North Georgia mountains, houses a wide variety of contemporary and folk art. You'll also find studios where, in warm weather, you can see artists working, including carver and painter Billy Roper. Located at 1538 Wesley Chapel Road, Dahlonega, GA; (706) 864-3938.

Marcia Weber/Art Objects in Montgomery, Alabama, has one of the best selections we've found, especially of works by Alabama artists such as Michael Banks, Lonnie Holley, Woodie Long, Charlie Lucas, Bernice Sims, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, Annie Tolliver, Mose Tolliver, and Myrtice West. Owner Marcia Weber is often out visiting the artists and looking for new talent. Open by appointment or by chance; (334) 262-5349 or www.marciaweberartobjects.com.

Red Piano Too Gallery in St. Helena Island, South Carolina, is a great place not only to look for works by artists such as Jimmie Lee Sudduth and Annie Tolliver, but to find those by local artists, including Allen Fireall, Irene Forrester, and Shirley Hunter. Call (843) 838-2241.

Rosehips Folk Art Gallery in Cleveland, Georgia, is open by appointment only. Owner Barbara Brogdon offers a wide range of works, including those by Georgia artists Ab the Flagman, John "Cornbread" Anderson, Mary Greene, Bonnie Loggins, Eric Legge, Charlie West, and Kenneth Woodall. Call (706) 865-6345, or visit www.rosehipsart.com.

Yard Dog Folk Art in Austin, Texas, has works by a number of artists, including many from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Texas artists include Sam Mirelez, Reginald Mitchell, and Isaac Smith. Randy Franklin, who owns the gallery with his wife, is a musician, so also look for works by artist-musicians such as Lamar Sorrento. Located at 1510 S. Congress Avenue, Austin, TX; (512) 912-1613 or www.yarddog.com.

Favorite Artist's Galleries
Danny Doughty features his work at his Folk House Folk Art Gallery in Painter, Virginia; (757) 442-2224 or www.thefolkhouse.com.

Woodie Long sells his work from his gallery at 1066 North Bay Drive, Santa Rosa Beach, FL; (850) 231-1783 or 1-800-613-7966.

Sam McMillan, known as "Sam the Dot Man," has a gallery of his work at 701 N, W. Blvd., Winston-Salem, NC 27101; (336) 724-1597.

Missionary Mary Proctor opens her junkyard/gallery/museum in Tallahassee, Florida, to visitors on Saturday and on Sunday afternoon. There is an admission fee; (850) 656-2879.

Best Folk Art Festivals
Bluegrass 'n More: A Celebration of Appalachian Heritage, June 4-8 in Morehead, Kentucky. Features numerous Kentucky folk artists. For more information call the Kentucky Folk Art Center at (606) 783-2204.

Minnie Adkins "Minnie's Day in the Country," June 28 in Isonville, Kentucky. Artist Minnie Adkins opens the grounds of her "Happy Gizzard Hollow" farm each year to friends and visitors. For more, or for directions, call the Kentucky Folk Art Center at (606) 783-2204.

Folk Fest, August 15-17, Atlanta. A folk art show and sale in the North Atlanta Trade Center, with works offered by more than 80 art dealers and galleries. Call (770) 932-1000, or visit www.slotinfolkart.com.

Kentuck Festival of the Arts, October 18-19, Northport, Alabama. This is the premier festival for folk art in the South. Among the guest folk artists last year were Ab the Flagman (the only place he sells directly to the public), Butch Anthony, Michael Banks, Fred Barclay, Jack Beverland, Jerry Brown, Chris Clark, Jerry Coker, Nora Ezell, Lorraine Gendron, Lonnie Holley, Danny Hoskinson, Bettye Kimbrell, Johnnie Jane Laird, Willie/Willie Lamendola, Woodie Long, Charlie Lucas, Betty Sue Mathews, Sam McMillan, Miller's Pottery (Allen Ham, Eric Miller, and Steve Miller), Missionary Mary Proctor, Sarah Rakes (the only place she sells directly to the public), Linda Laird Sandford, Robert Frito Seven, Dr. Bob Shaffer, Bernice Sims, James "Buddy" Snipes, Lamar Sorrento, Jimmie Lee Sudduth, Wanda Laird Teel, Annie Tolliver, John Henry Toney, Myrtice West, Indian Joe Williams, Ruby Williams, and Kenneth Allen Wilson.

This article is from the March 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.