Ruby Williams' "Berry So Sweet," Acrylic on wood panel, Courtesy of Dana and Carol Ste. Claire, St. Augustine, FL
Feb. 20, 2014
The Crisp-Ellert Art Museum at Flagler College is currently the site of an extraordinary collection of African-American folk art and ephemera—but only one week remains for this groundbreaking show.
The exhibition, titled The Object Tells a Story: African-American Folk Art from Florida, is part of the Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience Passport Program created by the City of St. Augustine and the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration. The exhibition features the work of four prominent African-American folk artists from around the state: Alyne Harris, Mary Proctor, Ruby C. Williams, and the late Purvis Young. What makes the show even more intriguing is the inclusion of artworks, dolls, textiles, ceramics, and other ephemera created and collected by members of St. Augustine’s African-American community. The show demonstrates the critical artistic contributions of African-Americans from the state of Florida, including those from our own community.
The four headline artists are well-known contributors to the contemporary art world. Alyne Harris, a Gainesville native, paints slaves, angels, and landscapes in poignant compositions. Mary Proctor crafts three-dimensional assembled works from buttons, mirrors, jewelry, and other trinkets. Ruby C. Williams, whose work was discovered through the brightly-colored signs she painted to advertise fruits and vegetables at her produce stand in Bealsville, Florida, continues her tradition of bold colors and shapes. And works by the late Miami artist Purvis Young incorporate found objects into collage and painting.
While the work of each of these established vernacular artists is stunning, the inclusion of local St. Augustine pieces makes the show even more meaningful, said Crisp-Ellert Museum Director Julie Dickover. “The connection to community contributors is very important,” she said. “When we were working on putting the folk art exhibit together, I had an epiphany. Instead of a traditional art show focusing on just a few names, I felt it was important to find the link to the community. St. Augustine has had such a rich history in the African-American experience. I asked around and was put in touch with Barbara Vickers, who immediately began making contacts and asking people in the community if they had artworks or ephemera to contribute, especially those pieces that embody a meaningful story.”
“It was amazing, how people responded,” said Vickers. “I called around and started asking local residents what they might be able to contribute, and the result was this beautiful collection. It’s a wonderful exhibit. And it’s so perfectly titled—every object in the show really does tell a story.”
Ten local residents contributed works, including dolls, crafts, quilts, ceramics, paintings, photographs, and more. Each contributor is featured in a video interview that plays on a loop in the Museum’s galleries, allowing viewers to understand the significance behind each piece. The common thread among all the contributors’ interviews is the tradition the work embodies and the meaning it has had for the family in which it originated.
Gwendolyn Rutledge Sandcroft and her sister Delores Rutledge Love, for example, contributed a quilt made from pieces of fabric passed down among the women in their family through three generations. The sisters’ great aunt Ella Hall, who was born in 1900 and lived to her mid-nineties, did most of the sewing on the quilt.
“It's a joy to have our quilt on display in the Museum,” said Sandcroft. “We are pleased to see that the younger generation can see how they can honor their family and their traditions through quilting and other art forms. Perhaps the show will encourage other people to create similar pieces.”
The exhibit also includes folk objects and filmed interviews with local school children created during three workshops taught by Ruby C. Williams last November. Fifth-grade students from Osceola Elementary School attended the first workshop at Fort Mose Historic State Park, the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in the United States. Second and third-grade students also participated in a two-day workshop at Ketterlinus Elementary School.
“Sometimes it can be a balancing act here at the Museum,” said Dickover. “We want to examine contemporary work in line with the contemporary art world, but we also want to serve the College and the community. This exhibit really accomplishes both.”
The Crisp-Ellert Museum folk art show is a passport venue for the City of St. Augustine’s exhibition, Journey 450 Years of the African-American Experience. The show The Object Tells a Story will be on exhibit through February 28, 2014. To learn more, visit http://www.flagler.edu/crispellert.