Jerry Brown doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. In his eyes he is just carrying on the family tradition of pottery making. To the art world, Brown motivates others to practice their art, whatever it may be.
Brown is the headline artist of the Jerry Brown Arts Festival, which is held each year the first weekend in March in Hamilton.
The festival will highlight artists mainly from the Southeast who have a uniquely Southern art form.
In fact, the theme for the festival is "Reflections of the South." This theme sets the tone for the entire event according to Marla Mintor, public relations director of the Northwest Alabama Arts Council.
"‘Reflections of the South’ is our standing theme," said Mintor. "The festival offers a glimpse of the true Southern lifestyle."
That lifestyle is typically manifested in folk art. Mintor said the majority of the festivals exhibitors are folk artists.
All of the artists must submit examples of their work to the arts council before they are admitted to the festival as exhibitors.
"We pride ourselves on providing a quality show for our community," explained Mintor. "The festival has improved the quality of living in our community. It has changed the way people think about Hamilton, Marion County and Northwest Alabama."
Mintor said having a famous artist like Jerry Brown to headline the festival has added real substance to the event.
"Jerry is our icon and we wanted to take full advantage of that," said Mintor. "And he works tirelessly to promote the festival and the arts without asking for anything in return."
This will mark the festival’s seventh year. And it has been growing by leaps and bounds since its inception.
Mintor recalled that the Hamilton Area Chamber of Commerce started the Jerry Brown Arts Festival in 2003 with seven artists. The show was held at the Bevill Business and Community Center in Hamilton.
"The chamber wanted some type of cultural event for the community," recalled Mintor. "And having Jerry Brown seemed like the perfect opportunity."
Within a couple of years the festival had grown so much it had to move to the town’s recreation center, which accommodated up to 34 exhibitors and vendors.
This year’s event will be held in the old Wal-Mart building just south of town on Military Street. Brown said they hope to have 75 exhibitors and food vendors.
This year’s dates are March 7 and 8. The hours for the festival are Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m..
Mintor said this year’s festival has been selected by the Southeast Tourism Society as a Top 20 event for March 2009.
Brown has received numerous awards and honors over the years for his artistry.
Among those awards are the National Heritage Fellowship in 1992 and the Alabama Heritage Award from the Alabama Arts Council in 2003.
Brown has some four or five pieces on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., including his famous face jugs.
Brown is a ninth-generation pottery maker. The local arts council traced the trade back in Brown’s family to the mid-1700s.
"When I started I knew pottery went way back, but I didn’t realize it went that far back," remarked Brown.
His face jugs and mugs are what have made him famous even though the art came from very humble beginnings.
Brown said his father had explained to him that slaves originally made the face jugs to keep their poisons in.
"They couldn’t read or write," said Brown. "So they made faces to go on the jugs so they wouldn’t drink what was in them."
One of his best-sellers, besides the face jugs, is churns. Brown said churns are very popular for pickle making.
He guarantees that when making pickles the salt will not come through his churns. Not all churns are created equal, noted Brown. Many are made too quickly and cheaply.
He credits his high quality churns to his use of good thick glaze and high firing temperature.
A Dying Art
Brown is working hard to preserve what he considers a "dying art"—traditional pottery making.
Money raised by the arts festival is used to fund local art education programs. Brown hosts a pottery class of sorts for fourth-graders from around Marion County each year.
Mintor said that in conjunction with their Alabama history lessons, fourth-graders are brought to Brown’s facility to see him in action and get involved in the pottery-making process for themselves. Those students’ projects will be displayed at the arts festival.
Each year the program rotates among the county’s schools.
Mintor also noted many of the festival’s exhibitor’s volunteer to serve as guest artists at local schools.
‘The festival is wonderful for our community—a positive promotion," said Mintor. "It is truly unique in the area."
Persons interested in information about Jerry Brown or the festival may call him at (205) 921-9483. Mintor may be reached by calling (205) 921-3632. The official website for the festival is www.jbaf.org.
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.