Housecat Drives Truck, Folk Art Fills Recording Studio Halls

by Ashley Karr
Read it @ Media Tea Shop

Folk Art is not always an acquired taste, like scallops or hard liquor. An affinity for these roughly hewn creations arrests some people at birth. Others initially look down their noses at the lack of refinement, but slowly, like bread rising, they release the attachment to rules and straight lines. The beauty of mistakes and missteps win them over. Of course, there exist those that just don't like Folk Art and never will. A kind warning to the later, "Don't get in the truck."

My newfound friend, Karen Mack, is like me. We both love Folk Art. Karen works at Doppler Studios here in Atlanta, which is interesting and fascinating in and of itself, but her cat and his art truck interested and fascinated me more. So, one rainy, Thursday afternoon, Karen kindly opened the doors to Doppler and we walked and talked down the Folk Art filled halls.

Ashley: How do you define Folk Art and how does that differ from the text book definition?
Karen: Folk Art is created by someone without formal training. It's loose. We define Folk Art more broadly than the experts. Folk Art also carries a sense of isolation. The people and communities that produce the art traditionally exist in separation from the rest of the world, but that's changed in the last few years. You won't find a Folk artist hiding away in the mountains somewhere with a cache of work that no one has seen before.

Ashley: Did Folk Art's recent rise in popularity or technology's "shrinking" of the world cause this change?
Karen: Both. You know, I've noticed many Folk artists bear another type of isolation. They live with some kind of social or emotional isolation – a limitation placed upon them or a problem they have to cope with, such as poor health, old age, or maybe they can't hold down a job. This doesn't apply to every Folk artist, and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I just observed this commonality.  

Ashley: That debate on "the artist's disposition" always elicits interesting discussions. What is your opinion? Are select individuals born artists and pain or adversity draws out their talents, or does the pain or adversity come first and art materializes as a coping tool?
Karen: Oh, the artist is always there. Because of these problems or limitations, they have the time and the outlet. For example, one woman Folk artist loved to paint as a girl, but she grew to adulthood, worked, and raised her children. When she got older, she had the time to paint again.

Ashley: Who was Howard Finster and how did he inspire you to employ your cat?
Karen: I just remembered something. When we visited Howard, his cat always sat on his lap. Anyway, Howard was an inspiration to other Folk artists, not simply a Folk artist himself. He loved inspiring others to make their own art, including my husband and I. Howard talked a lot about method, which in turn influenced our methods. He had a good sense of humor, was resourceful, took good care of his family, and followed his own path. His was a religious one, and he often referenced the Bible.

Toward the end of his life, people stole things from him left and right. I mentioned this to him and asked why he didn't do anything to stop it. He agreed that it wasn't right for people to take from him, but it was God's will. Howard felt a greater importance rested in spreading his message than ending the theft. The message is out there. That's what matters.

Ashley: How did you get involved with Folk Art?
Karen: It just grew on me. My husband and I met Howard first, then we started meeting other artists. We like to travel, and we take trips to make connections with them.

Ashley: Name the strangest experience you've had with an artist?
Karen: They're all strange! Mose Tolliver was a famous Folk artist and lived in Montgomery, Alabama. My husband and I decided to look him up and pay him a visit. So, we sat on his bed and talked about art, living in Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement, and George Wallace. Then this guy bursts through the door screaming, "Gimme some beer!" Mose stayed really calm and told the guy he didn't have any. The guy shouted back, "I'm going to get a gun," and left.

This rattled my husband and I, and I asked Mose, "Who was that man?"

"My son," he replied.

Ashley: What is the strangest experience you've had with the gallery?
Karen: A movie director stopped by once. He considered filming in the studio, but that fell through. He came back, though, because he liked the art and wanted to buy gifts for the cast and crew. We opened up the studio for him on a Saturday morning. He walked up and down the halls, lifted the pieces that he wanted off the hooks and set them on the floor…that was the biggest sales day we've ever had.

Ashley: How do you choose pieces for the gallery?
Karen: The artists choose. We don't tolerate certain obscenities, but other than that, Mike's Art Truck doesn't care.

Ashley: How do you choose the pieces you purchase for your personal collection?
Karen: I usually know the artist. The piece has to be genuine and mean something to them. Money limits us…and space.

Ashley: Do you have a favorite piece?
Karen: I'm not good at picking favorites. We've had a long relationship with Eric Legge, a buddy of ours. Doppler commissioned him to make artwork for the studio foyer. The sound engineers gave him pieces of broken recording equipment, and he came up with these incredible pieces.

Upon discovering his work, I thought it was religious because he always painted a little, white church. When my husband and I drove to his house for the first time, I realized his art wasn't religious at all. He paints what he sees. He lives across the street from that church. I do think his work is spiritual, though.

Ashley: How do you find new artists to include in the gallery?
Karen: We seek them out, but there's not enough time to find everyone. We get referrals from other artists, learn about new artists from shows and auctions, and occasionally work with ethical dealers.

Ashley: What are your future plans?
Karen: We'd like to expand and open up to a more diverse group of artists and buyers, but there is finite space here at Doppler. We want to help artists that need a hand – to show work that other galleries will not represent. We'd also like to spruce up the website and get more exposure that way.

And so the rainy afternoon ticked by and evening came. I bid farewell to my new friend, Karen, and all the charming, homespun works of art, made by hand with love and time and sporadic peanut shells. I felt blessed. I felt inspired. I felt compelled to tell the world, that art is what you make it, and you can make it from whatever: wires, synthesizer keys, bones, memories…it really doesn't matter. What matters is that you make it, or at the very least, gives thanks to those who do. 

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