Art Works Blog

Alabama Arts: Exploring a Culture

There are better and worse ways of doing things. If we understand and appreciate the better way of doing things---a better way of communicating, a better way of living, a better way of learning, a better way of treating our fellow man---that is an art form.---Albert Head

Whenever I take a trip away from home, I am always curious about what’s going on with the arts in that area. What artists live in that community? How do people celebrate the arts there? How do the arts reflect the culture of that unique region? Visiting my parents last month in Montgomery, Alabama, I couldn’t help but wonder what was happening with the arts in Alabama.

While I have a strong grasp on the arts world where I live (in the Washington, DC metro area), I understand that art is a product of a region’s culture. No two areas’ cultures are exactly the same; every community has unique ways of life that shape how the arts function in that particular society. As a native Southerner with roots in Alabama, I was eager to explore what makes the arts in that state unique.

During my visit, I was fortunate enough to interview Albert B. Head, executive director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Director of the council for the past 28 years, Head provided a perspective seasoned by years of experience in the arts and a deep understanding of the culture of Alabama. Awarded a 2012 NEA National Heritage Fellowship for his work in traditional and folk arts, Head discussed the value of folk arts in Alabama, why it is vital to preserve them, and his future vision for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

NEA: What do you believe makes the arts in Alabama unique?

ALBERT HEAD: There are many different cultures in the South, not just one. It's much more diverse than I think people realize. In Alabama, we have some things that are common to the Southern tradition, but then we've got some things that have a strong tradition only here.

There are quilters all over the place, but unique to Alabama are the Gee's Bend quilters. The Gee's Bend quilters live in a very isolated part of the Black Belt, a region in southern Alabama. They're a wonderful, marvelous group of ladies who work with materials that are indigenous to Gee's Bend. Over the last ten or fifteen years, their work has been recognized as being incredibly unique. Many have even compared their work to modernist paintings.

The art and culture associated with Mardi Gras is also very indigenous and specific to Alabama. Most people identify Mardi Gras with New Orleans, but Mardi Gras actually started in Mobile, Alabama. There are artistic expressions and practices and traditions that go along with that that are totally unique to Alabama.

William Christenberry from Hale County, Alabama, is a very famous photographer whose work is associated with a sense of place. He’s been teaching at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC, for a long time. He has photographed the same old church, the same landscape, and really the changing landscape of Alabama over a 30-year-plus period of time. His work is very reflective of a sense of place and where he comes from. One gets a real flavor for Alabama from Bill’s work. You get a feel for what the state is all about.

NEA: You've been director of the Alabama State Council on the Arts for the past 28 years. What changes have you observed in Alabama's cultural landscape during your work with the council?

HEAD: In the context of state government and public support for the arts, there was a long period of time in Alabama where there was a general notion that the arts were a frill. That it was a nice thing that people with a lot of money would do because they could afford and appreciate it. I think the arts were viewed as something you would do after all of the other important stuff has been taken care of. Over the last 30 years, people have increasingly figured out that quality of life is something that government needs to give some attention to. Quality of life means more than just roads or healthcare. Quality of life has a lot to do with the arts and cultural environment within a place. Where do people want to live? Where do they want to bring their families? Where do they want their kids to grow up? And they have a lot of choices these days. If you don't have a vibrant cultural community, you're working at a real disadvantage. So, in the eyes of public officials, I think that we have seen the arts becoming part of a much bigger picture in terms of planning and policy. The arts have come to that big table and are part of the conversation in a way that I don't think existed 30 or 40 years ago.

NEA: What do you think sets the Alabama State Council on the Arts apart from other state arts agencies?

HEAD: Here in Alabama, we have gone through the process of looking at local needs, problems, and opportunities. We’ve tried to shape and mold programs to address these things. If you look at the evolution of the arts in this country, in the last 40 or 50 years there has been an evolution of nonprofit arts organizations who are engaged in arts programming. However, in folk arts you don't have very many; very few [nonprofit organizations] program folk arts. In most cases, folk artists don't consider themselves artists. What they’re doing is something that's been handed down through the family. They don't necessarily think their pottery or their furniture making is an art form. We have come to appreciate the fact that it very much is. We founded the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, which is part of the State Council on the Arts. We are responding to resources and a culture that is very important to us. We have taken a more proactive approach in terms of supporting and preserving and stimulating folk culture in Alabama, maybe more than some states have. We're very committed to that and very proud of that.

NEA: In fall 2012 you received an NEA Heritage Fellowship---the Bess Lomax Hawes award---for your work in cultural heritage preservation. Why do you believe preserving folk and traditional art is important?

HEAD: As we are increasingly in the age of high tech, I think conversely we want to have a grip on authentic things from the past that are rooted in tradition. Whether that's our family, community, or state or region, we want to understand what things in our environments have influenced us. The folk and traditional arts help us do this. They are very much connected to our roots and where we came from. It's not as though folk art and folk artists don't have a contemporary element to them, though. They do; the folk arts keep evolving as culture evolves within communities. Folk art is not all old-fashioned. It adapts and moves on, but it is rooted in tradition, culture, family, and community.

NEA: You have started folk arts programs not only in Alabama, but in Louisiana and Florida as well. What impact do you hope these programs have in each of these regions?

Head: We hope the impact will be a deeper sense of appreciation, and that people will value and preserve their folk traditions. If you expose young people to traditional art forms in the right way, we find that there's great appreciation there. There can be some real casualties if we don't emphasize or place value on passing these things down.

The history of this country with Native-American culture is one example. We kept moving westward, and Native-American culture was something that was not appreciated as much as it should have been. We tried very hard to “Americanize” Native Americans. In many cases, they lost their language and stopped practicing a lot of their traditions and culture. Then we came back around full circle and said, “How is it you don’t remember your native language? Where are the traditional basket weavers or potters?” We don't want that to continue happening. As we have new populations come to this country, I hope we can celebrate and appreciate diversity as opposed to being afraid of it. The arts can bring people together to do this.

NEA: What is your future vision for the arts in Alabama, and how does the Council fit into this vision?

HEAD: I've heard people quoted saying, “There’s nothing important about the arts---except understanding life.” If the arts are the most elevated form of expression, then how can that not be fundamental as we evolve as a civilized people, nation, or world? I think in this country we still have a bit of the Puritan work ethic, where work is the most important thing. At times, there’s almost a guilt complex about leisure time and playing. You’re not supposed to enjoy yourself until all of the other important stuff is taken care of. I would like to see that the arts are not part of that kind of attitude and thinking. It's not just leisure time. It's not something you do after all the other important things in your life are taken care of. For generations to come, I hope that the arts can become more central to who we are, what we do, and where we live.

NEA: At the NEA, we say “Art Works,” which means three things: the work of art itself, the transformative way art works on individuals, and that artists are actually workers in our workforce. What does “Art Works” mean to you?

Head: My area of study in college was aesthetics, which trains you to identify beauty and discriminate between things that are well done and well thought out. There are better and worse ways of doing things. If we understand and appreciate the better way of doing things---a better way of communicating, a better way of living, a better way of learning, a better way of treating our fellow man---that is an art form. Everything around us can become an art form if we want to do it better and more beautifully. So, art is working in all areas of our lives. The NEA's logo in that regard is extremely appropriate and well stated.

Want to hear more from Albert Head? Listen to our Art Works podcast with him!

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