The Gibbes pulls together a patchwork of a show 

Call and Response

To most people, quilts are bedspreads that belong at home. But as far as folk artists and art curators are concerned, some quilts belong in a museum.

Stacy C. Hollander selected nine quilts from a comprehensive collection in the American Folk Art Museum for a 2005 show called Ancestry & Innovation. Hollander, the museum's senior curator and director of exhibitions, then joined forces with co-curator Brooke Davis Anderson. Anderson picked contemporary artworks to juxtapose with the quilts, with an assortment of two-dimensional art arranged in a quilt-like grid.

According to Hollander, the museum had included different media in its quilt exhibitions before but never on this scale. "I focus more on traditional and earlier material," says Hollander. "Brooke is more of a contemporary art curator." (She's director of the Folk Art Museum's Contemporary Center.) "It was like a call and response — she responded to the quilts with her own selection."

The exhibition has been on tour since 2008, with stops in cities like Winston-Salem, N.C., and Wilmington, Del., circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. For the next 10 weeks, the Gibbes will devote its second floor galleries to the rich array of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by self-taught artists like Sam Doyle, Thornton Dial Sr., and Kevin Sampson.

Doyle, Dial, and Sampson represent different facets of the same genre — the "old guard" of venerable artists, modern-day masters, and emerging names. All of the contributors to the show are autodidacts, and without the fetters of a fine art education they make imaginative use of color and composition. Their figures are simply wrought. Dial's "King of Africa" is a muddy mixed-media depiction of a lion with rounded shapes for paws and a few enamel strokes for features. Doyle's "I'll Go Down" shows a strangely pudgy milk-white Jesus painted in oil on wood, fabric, and metal.

"We're looking at objects outside the classically defined realm of fine art," says Gibbes executive director Angela Mack. "We've chosen to investigate this."

The definition of art has been argued since Plato's time. An artwork's context and location changes our perception of it. Mack compares the potential response to Ancestry & Innovation to last year's Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art show. "Some people scratch their heads and ask, 'How is that art?' while some people say, 'Why isn't it art?'"

Those are the kinds of questions that Mack wants people to be asking. "Except in terms of quality, there's no right answer. We want to present top quality artistic achievement that reflects our community." She cites sweetgrass baskets as utilitarian objects that have reached the level of art form. "There's no denying that they can be works of art."

The exhibition will resonate with our community in other ways. Regional artists are represented, including some of whom (like Sam Doyle) have been featured at the Gibbes in the past. Doyle's a prime example of the show's focus: born and raised on the island of St. Helena, S.C., he spent the '60s through the mid-'80s depicting the Gullah-drenched culture there. He liked to use acrylic, and his chosen canvasses were junked pieces of roofing metal. These materials along with his rounded, naïve figures make his art look like faded, alternative versions of commercial signage — from an artist who lived on an island that struggled to avoid commercial development.

Artists from Lousiana (Clementine Hunter), Alabama (Dial Jr.), and Mississippi (Pecolia Warner) are represented, as well as contributors from farther north. For example, Kevin Sampson from Newark, N.J. is a sculptor who has used his art to express his feelings about politics and culture. True to folk form he makes heavy use of found objects to make his intricate, multi-hued pieces.

But it's the quilts that really stand out. Take their simple design and vivid colors, place them on a museum wall, and you have eye-catching decorative art. Whether they're folk, fine, or both, these woven works will brighten up the Gibbes while signifying an important part of Charleston's heritage.

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