April 2007
Featured Articles

In Wilcox County, Black Belt Artisans Have New Venue for Treasures

 
  Delia Brand of Black Belt Treasures stands next to a painting that sold quickly.
By Alvin Benn

Black Belt farmers with a creative flair now have a place to show off their skills and make money at the same time.

It’s called Black Belt Treasures (BBT) and provides a venue for people who, in the past, have had to rely on roadside stands, flea markets or arts and crafts fairs to display their wares.

Since it opened just down from the Wilcox County Courthouse on Sept. 23, 2005, the facility has become a popular place for painters, carvers, quilters, authors, sculptors and others with an artistic bent.

It not only provides a nice return on their “sweat equity,” but also gives them a place to spotlight their work. During the first year of operation, BBT sold more than $200,000 worth of artwork and netted the artisans 75 percent of that amount.

Black Belt Treasures is part bookstore, part art gallery and part cultural museum all rolled up into one.

No one can be happier about it than John Clyde Riggs who directs the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission. He downplays his role in the project, but others aware of how it all turned out are quick to praise him for his foresight.

“We sent several people into our region and asked them to take an inventory, of sorts, of artistic people,” said Riggs. “We were thinking of ways to increase our tourism capabilities and this has been a good way to do it.”

 
Evette Woods holds a colorful plate that is for sale at Black Belt Treasures.  
The result was a place to allow people in nearly 20 central and south Alabama counties to display their artistic talents. The third word in the name describes what’s inside—“treasures.”

One of the most popular artists whose works are on display is Selma’s Kathryn Tucker Windham, a nationally known storyteller, author and photographer who has a large following.

Her books about ghosts, growing up in Thomasville, her days as a reporter in Montgomery and priceless photos of Black Belt residents have made her works in constant demand. Her books sell out almost as quickly as a new order is filled.

Windham would rather talk about other artists whose works are on display at Black Belt Treasures. She said they are finally getting the recognition they have long deserved.

“The quality of crafts there is just outstanding,” she said. “It’s much more than paintings. There is everything from wood carvings to handmade soap, from hobby horses to kudzu baskets.”

Not all artists till the soil at their rural homes, but they consider themselves farmers in the truest sense of the word. In many instances, they grow artistic creations with the same energy and optimism as farmers who produce row crops and vegetables.

Take, for instance, Andrew and Etta McCall of Letohatchee, a small community in Lowndes County. They have been producing vine and branch creations for years and they are popular products at Black Belt Treasures. Self-taught basket weavers and furniture makers, the McCalls say they are following “divine guidance” by creating items using methods taught to them by God. The two have been making their baskets and furniture for more than a quarter of a century. They’ve also passed down their creative abilities to their children.

 
  Sulynn Creswell loves to tell shoppers all about the many beautiful quilts being made in the Black Belt.
The McCalls use all recycled or naturally harvested materials. They get much of their heart pine lumber from old houses that are being demolished, while the vines are taken from the woods. What they do is mix the wood and vines to create unique tables and chairs that are always original. No two are alike. Wisteria, grape and some kudzu vines are twisted together by hand to make baskets and furniture that reflect the McCalls’ respect for and enjoyment of nature.

Gourd lovers have come to admire the artistic talents of Ric Wilson of rural Dallas County and marvel at his work on display at Black Belt Treasures. A music teacher who loves jazz and bluegrass, Wilson has been decorating his gourds the way ancients did when they used them as water containers.

“They’ve been very good to me,” Wilson said of the positive response he’s gotten at Black Belt Treasures. “They’ll call and tell me when they need some more gourds and when the market is hot.”

Wilson said many of his gourds sell quickly and carry prices in the hundreds of dollars. He and other artists operate on a consignment basis and there haven’t been any complaints from them.

He said he usually does better at arts and crafts festivals because “that’s what people come to buy,” but he also appreciates the help he has received at Black Belt Treasures since it opened and began displaying his gourds.

A gourd is harvested after the first freeze, allowing moisture to escape from the fruit through its outer layer of skin. Once dry, a gourd becomes very hard and can withstand the burning tools that are used to decorate it.

Wilson first draws his pattern and then uses special irons and drills designed for gourd work to burn intricate details. Leather dyes are applied with cotton swabs and tiny paintbrushes before the gourd is sealed with varnish, clear lacquer or clear shoe polish.

When it comes to woodcarvings, John Sheffey of Minter is considered one of the best in Alabama by those who have seen his intricate work. A retired Army colonel with a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s in economics, Sheffey is an avid outdoorsman who began carving award-winning birds after reading a book and buying tools he’d need to create them.

Sheffey’s birds are so detailed that customers at Black Belt Treasures often think they have been stuffed and mounted. Told they are woodcarvings, they stare at them in disbelief.

He uses Tupelo gum that he collects from nearby swamps. The texture of the wood accepts the burning process and its grain allows him to carve in both directions. Sheffey uses small hand tools to create the birds and then burns the meticulous details of the feathers while working under a magnifying glass. Once he’s done with the carving, Sheffey applies up to six thin coats of oil paints to slowly build a realistic depth of color.

“The first thing we sold on our website was one of his ducks,” said Sulynn Creswell. “It was sold to a woman from Birmingham, then she ordered an owl. She and her husband came down here to look around and were very impressed by what they saw.”

Because of the delicacy of Sheffey’s wildlife creations, it takes special care and attention to ship them to buyers.

“We have to first wrap them in white tissue because you can’t put plastic against it,” said Creswell. “He uses oil paint and we want to make sure none of it comes off in shipping.”

Creswell said the prices at Black Belt Treasures, such as Sheffey’s ducks and owls, can cost up to $1,000 or more, but compare well with similar works sold in other states.

Delia Brand, who had served as director of the facility until a few weeks ago when she joined Riggs’ office, said some artists have earned thousands of dollars a year by utilizing the outlet.

Quilts made by women throughout the Black Belt are among the most popular items at Black Belt Treasures, which is a non-profit economic development program.

Hand-made items at Black Belt Treasures range in prince from a few pennies for candy from Priester’s Pecans in Fort Deposit to thousands for sculptures fashioned by Charlie Lucas of Selma.

Not all artists live on farms, but most reside in rural counties with a love of the outdoors, nature and all that goes with it.

For details about Black Belt Treasures, call (334) 682-9878. The web-site is www.blackbelttreasures.com. Store hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.