November 2018
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Black Belt Treasures

Alabama artisans find a perfect place in Camden to promote their creations.

 

Billie Gibbs wears a big smile as she holds a large plate with falling leaves on it at Black Belt Treasures

The holiday season is underway and artists from throughout Alabama are taking advantage of the timing as Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas blend together to attract customers from across the state.

Black Belt Treasures was born on Sept. 23, 2005, and the 13th anniversary has been, believe it or not, a lucky start for artisans who bring their wares to a building near the Wilcox County Courthouse.

Jamie Wallace has watched with pride as artists arrive with their specialty items and sit back to wait for what usually are rave reviews.

Anything new can often be a gamble, but that’s never been the case because it’s been a hit from opening day.

Wallace never considered Black Belt Treasures to be a gamble because he’s been one of Alabama’s leading industrial promoters, especially when it comes to something that can benefit the state.

Located in a former car dealership in downtown Camden, Black Belt Treasures’ main service area lies within a 50-mile radius. Customers often extend it beyond that area.

Wallace points to the uniqueness of what is available inside the building, a nondescript facility that won’t win any architectural prizes. Once visitors begin to look for bargains, however, shoppers realize they are in a special place.

"What’s been accomplished is a business that brings together talented artists from near and far, but not necessarily within the primary coverage area," said Wallace.

Unlike many blue-ribbon businesses, Black Belt Treasures does not focus on clothes. Everything else seems to be on the plate – from paintings to specialty soap to jugs that can be somewhat frightening to examine at times.

The business is located at 209 Claiborne Street, just around the corner from the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission that covers a 10-county area, one of the poorest in the state.

Betty Anderson holds two small blocks of Gees’s Bend Soap at Black Belt Treasures

 
   

It didn’t just pop up out of a desire to create something new and enticing. Too many of those businesses often go belly up because they lack concentrated studies to make sure success is a given.

John Clyde Riggs directs the regional planning commission and knew that previous studies paid off when patience was an important business ingredient.

"We sent several people into our region and asked them to take an inventory, of sorts, of artistic people," Riggs recalled. "We were thinking of ways to increase tourism capabilities and our plan was a good way to do it."

Those who ventured into states throughout the country had become "talent scouts" who were happy to find unique items to suggest for Black Belt Treasures.

Wallace said it didn’t take long to "discard" ideas that failed to meet specific criteria, especially when "artists" were happy to get anything for their products.

"They had been selling at weekend shows and festivals," he said. "There was no method for them to establish value and, as a result, what they made was greatly undervalued in many cases."

As a result, rules were set down and followed. Wallace demanded that no "junk" be accepted by potential vendors at Black Belt Treasures.

"There was no way that ‘Made in China’ would be accepted on our products," Wallace said. "We had talented people creating works of art and that fact helped make Black Belt Treasures successful."

The result was a place to allow people in nearly 20 central and south Alabama counties to display their artistic wares. "Treasures," of course, was an important part of the name.

New ideas usually need a sponsor, somebody to step in and give it a gentle push to make it successful. Such was the case of Black Belt Treasures.

Her name was Kathryn Tucker Windham, who was born in Selma and became famous as a nationally-known storyteller, author, radio personality and photographer.

Tucker, who died several years ago at the age of 93, knew a good thing when she heard about one and Black Belt Treasures was certainly to her liking. She knew it was a winner and wanted to promote it as much as possible.

She said the quality of crafts at the business was "outstanding," and pointed out that it was much more than just paintings.

"There is everything from wood carvings to handmade soap, from hobby horses to kudzu baskets," said Windham, who was also known to be a gourd fancier.

She made it a point to promote gifted artists and was quickly drawn to the works of Allen Ham, whose handmade stoneware emanated from Alabama’s oldest family folk pottery background.

 

Artist Allen Ham holds this “ferocious” Face Jug at Black Belt Treasures in Camden

Credit went to Francis Lacoste, who arrived in Mobile Bay in the early 1800s. His family grew from that point and Ham boasts of being part of six generations of craftsmen.

The history of his family has been documented on film, in books, magazines and newspapers. Ham’s stone creatures can be seen neatly displayed on a table at Black Belt Treasures.

If there is a superstar at the business it’s got to be retired Army colonel John Sheffey, who is considered to be one of the best wood carvers in Alabama.

What Sheffey may have lacked in skills from the start was made up by reading books on wood carving and buying tools needed to create what have become knockout wildlife creations.

His birds are amazing, so detailed and lifelike that customers at Black Belt Treasures think they must have been stuffed and mounted. They are astonished to learn they are Sheffey’s personal creations.

He uses Tupelo gum that he collects from nearby swamps. The texture of the wood he uses accepts a burning process that allows him to carve in both directions.

That’s when he really gets busy, using small hand tools to create the birds. Then he burns in meticulous details of the feathers while working under a magnifying glass.

Once all of that is done, Sheffey applies up to six thin coats of oil paints to slowly build realistic depths of color.

"Phenomenal" is the word often used by visitors who have a hard time realizing the birds aren’t real. They quickly find out the price tags can be just as stunning.

Sheffey’s ducks, owls, cardinals and other feathery friends can cost up to $1,000 or more. Needless to say, most are carefully protected when he sends them off to new homes.

Black Belt Treasures is located at 209 Claiborne St., Camden, Ala. and can be reached at: www.blackbelttreasures.com. (334)682-9878.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.