Established in 1985, Main Street Gallery represents artists primarily from the Southeastern United States, a region fertile in folk art as well as fine art, crafts and other artful expressions. We are located in the scenic Appalachian Mountains of North Georgia, halfway between Asheville, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. Housed in a historic downtown building on Main Street in Clayton, GA, we offer three art-filled floors of renovated space to explore.
Our gallery specializes in contemporary folk art, also known as self-taught or outsider art. We also feature Southern folk pottery, fine art, and hand-crafted furniture. In our gift section, we offer handmade jewelry, unusual accessories, and other unique items. It is the kind of place where many have stopped in for a few minutes, only to lose themselves in our carefully curated selection, emerging a few hours later with something utterly surprising.
Contemporary Folk Art, Self-Taught, Outsider, Outlier, Visionary, or Vernacular Art?
In the early discovery stages of this expressive and often quirky art of the individual, it was simply referred to as “folk art.” “Folk art” however, was also the term used to describe traditional crafts such as pottery, quilting, and other handicrafts passed down through the generations. As a result, an acceptable alternative name has been sought for quite some time, but to this day, the discussion continues.
“Self-taught,” comes close to an acceptable term, but untutored-in-art is only part of the equation and does not address other important characteristics.
“Visionary” describes artists inspired by religious or other-worldly revelations. Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, and Mary Proctor are notable examples of artists who could be considered visionary artists.
“Outsider” was coined by British writer and historian Roger Cardinal in 1972. It was an extension of “Art Brut,” otherwise known as an art of the insane.
“Vernacular” is one of the latest descriptors. It relates to the art or language of the common man.
Suffice it to say, no one has come up with an unflawed label to adequately encompass or explain all the qualities represented by the diverse artists in this field.
What is Folk Art?
Simply stated, it is an art by artists who have no formal art education and who work in relative isolation, be it geographic or psychological, from the artistic mainstream. It is made by artists coloring outside the lines of traditional art and unbiased by academic ideas. Most of these artists work with whatever materials are readily at hand: roofing tin, cast-off lumber, cardboard, house paint, or found objects. Their creative catalyst might spring from a religious revelation, a personal ordeal, or a compelling need to communicate. Though the inspiration may vary among individual artists, their work is intensely personal and uniquely their own. The resulting art may be whimsical, frightening, or peculiar, but it is all artwork that conveys a startlingly candid and sincere expression.
What Characterizes a Folk Artist.
In addition to a lack of formal training, one of the most important characteristics is the possession of an original and immediately recognizable style. For the most inspired folk artists, this style is not influenced by other art or artists and remains relatively consistent from the beginning to the end of their artistic careers. In contrast, academically trained artists typically appropriate from other art, experiment, and evolve.
As a gallerist and collector, I have spent many years traveling to meet self-taught artists in both isolated rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods, navigating down roads ranging from pastoral to those which gave me pause. Seeing the artists in their surroundings, along with their art, and listening to the stories they typically enjoy telling, has been a joy as well as an essential part of understanding this field. After countless visits over time, I began to recognize that the similarities among the people making the art are often more striking than the similarities among the art they create.
Critic and historian Roger Cardinal, wrote about the importance of “selfhood” in his enlightening essay, “The Self in Self-Taught Art.” One of his perceptions was that these artists are self-motivated, self-influenced, and self-involved. It was a clarifying notion which, when I read it, I thought, “yes, that’s absolutely it!”
If we talk about other “selfs,” because many others apply to the self-taught artist, one of my favorite “selfs” is “self-centered,” without meaning it in a typically negative way. A favorite example occurred during my first trip in the late 1980s to meet the remarkable, captivating, and entertaining artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth. I arrived in Fayette, Alabama, but could not find his house. I called Jimmy Lee from a phone booth and when I asked him for directions, he shouted enthusiastically into the receiver, “I’m right here good girl, right here at the center of the universe!”
On a recent visit to Tallahassee, Florida, Mary Proctor talked with non-stop exuberance as she followed me through the labyrinth of her painted doors adorned with found objects and her signature sayings. If I lingered over a particular piece, she would exclaim, “Ain’t that beautiful!” Of course, who could disagree!
A customer years ago came to my gallery to meet “Missionary Mary” with the idea of owning one of her pieces, but she was so offended by Mary’s unconstrained ego, she decided not to purchase her work. Suddenly, it struck me that without Mary’s level of self-confidence, it would have been impossible for her, or almost any self-taught artist, to produce such personal, passionate and unprecedented artwork, and then to share it with the rest of us. We are truly fortunate that Mary, and others like her, believe so strongly in their vision.
The Self-Taught Artist and Their Art
Initially, many folk artists have no idea they may be an artist or that their creations may be considered art. When I first met Mama Johnson, the late St. Petersburg, Florida, artist, I asked her how she began making art. She just laughed and said, “I don’t make no art, I just fix things up!” The now-deceased Northeast Georgia artist R.A. Miller regularly referred to his amazing whirligigs and paintings on Masonite and roofing tin as “junk.” Even though these two artists did not realize they were making art, they were, nonetheless, wholly invested in what they produced.
Many self-taught artists are unappreciative of art that is not their own. I remember showing Mama Johnson a colorful folk painting by a well-known artist whose style was simple, but perhaps less so than her own. With a quizzical frown and a rare loss for words, she squinted at the gestural, semi-abstract figures painted on paper. It was clear she was struggling to understand artwork that, for her, had no familiar category. Before she could dismiss it entirely, however, or put it in her “invisible garbage can,” as she liked to say, a possibility occurred to her. “Did a child do this?” she asked. Her question still strikes me as funny but also, significant.
Most self-taught artists are unconcerned if some individuals do not understand their work. I especially like this Charlie Lucas quote I found in the book O, Appalachia: Artists of the Southern Mountains. “My neighbors, they’d ask what I was doing hoarding junk. I’d make a piece, they’d look at it and say, oh, that ain’t nothing but old hoods, bumpers, and stuff. You know, I’d smile at them, because I don’t worry about what people ain’t got in them to see.”
Where to Learn More
There is no question that more and more galleries, collectors, and museums are embracing the importance of self-taught art. Many of the artists we represent now have their art included in the permanent collections of prestigious museums such as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the New Orleans Museum, the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the St. Petersburg Museum of Art in St Petersburg, FL. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York added to their collection the work of Lonnie Holley, Purvis Young, and Charlie Lucas.
There are many books on the subject of self-taught art and individual artists.
This page allows you to keep up with our current exhibitions and a list of upcoming events. Oct. 23 through Jan. 8, we are exhibiting small works that are perfect for holiday gift-giving like this adorable paper mache bear with found objects by Carol Roll. (See our exhibitions page for more information.)
We are excited to offer a new service for our customers who wish to sell some of their collection as well as customers who wish to add to their collection. Go to “Finds” to discover carefully curated consignments from the secondary market. This Sarah Rakes oil painting from the early 1990’s, is a wonderful example.