Have Gift, Will Use

An exhibition at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum at Flagler College brings together a rare collection of folk art, keepsakes and family heirlooms. “The Object Tells a Story: 
African American Folk Art from Florida” opened Jan. 20 in conjunction with another exhibition at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center, “Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience.” “The Object” features work by well-known Floridian African-American vernacular artists Alyne Harris, Mary Proctor, Ruby C. Williams and Purvis Young, as well as quilts, dolls, ceramics and paintings that were provided by those in the St. Augustine community. Recorded and written statements of many contributors are also featured in the exhibit.

Though none of the folk artists in this exhibition received any formal training, their work reverberates with the passion that is the hallmark of the true artist.

“I think that just the formal qualities of [folk art] are really attractive, the bright colors and the lines … the simplicity of it, it can be very approachable for people. But for me, I just love the story,” says Julie Dickover, the museum’s director.

Proctor, who was what she calls a “junk dealer,” began painting doors — two of which are in this exhibit — following the tragic deaths of her grandmother, aunt and uncle in a house fire. Harris works as a housekeeper by day, artist by night. Young grew up hard in Miami and rediscovered his love of art while serving three years in prison. And Williams, a former minister, is a produce vendor in the historic African-American town of Bealsville, on land passed down from her great-grandmother, Mary Reddick, a former slave and one of the town’s founders.

Hand-painted, brightly colored signs at Williams’ stand caught the eye of folk artist Rodney Hardee in 1991. Corresponding in a handwritten letter, Williams, who was born in the 1920s, writes, “I was born with a mind to be an artist, and I had this in my spirit as I grew up.” Encouraged by Hardee and others, Williams embarked on an art career. Since then, she has become a celebrated folk artist whose work has been seen all over the country and been displayed at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C.

“They as my fans tell me that I am very, very famous for Ruby C. I am just Ruby C.,” she writes. “I have the gift so I use it.”

“The Object” aims to illuminate and celebrate the link between folk art and the cherished objects that people pass down from generation to generation. These objects are more than family heirlooms; they’re pieces of history that contribute to a larger tale. “The 
African-American history here is so rich and significant and a lot of stuff happened here in the Sixties during the Civil Rights era,” Dickover says, “… All of this comes through in these objects. They’re diverse but they are connected.”

Several members of the community, including Barbara Vickers — whom Dickover calls a tremendous asset in putting together this exhibition — have contributed handmade dolls. It turns out that St. Augustine has a little-known subculture of doll-makers, a group of women in their 80s and 90s who took a doll-making class in their late 70s or early 80s, Dickover says.

Some of the keepsakes are more intriguing taken in context; others are spectacular on their own. “[One] woman has what we think is a Civil War-era hand-painted photograph of who we think is her great-great grandmother, who was a slave based in Wrightsville, Ga.,” Dickover says. These images and other objects and artworks, including a painting by Vickers of Cooper School, a segregated school in the Lincoln area, recall memories of bygone eras and provide a rare glimpse into aspects of African-American culture through the works and words of the people who were and are a part of it. o