By Shawn Pitts
The phrase “fine art” is sometimes used to distinguish visual art created purely for expressive or aesthetics purposes from art objects fashioned for utility. In other words, fine art is thought-provoking or pretty to look at, but otherwise not very useful. I’ve never found that distinction particularly helpful, especially when it’s used by snobs to make themselves feel superior or erect artificial barriers that hamper accessibility to the arts. Another unproductive way of categorizing creativity is placing a partition between fine art and folk art as a means of segregating the trained artist from the self-taught artist. Again, not very helpful.
Fortunately there’s not a lot of art snobbery around here, and the county arts agency, Arts in McNairy, has worked hard to ensure it stays that way. One of the core values of the organization has always been inclusiveness. The volunteer leadership is oriented to recognize the value of all creativity without regard for artificial boundaries or elitist attitudes about the arts. It is possible—desirable, as we see it—to simultaneously appreciate the merits of a a great painting and an item of traditional handcraft or folk art without drawing meaningless comparisons.
This is not to say there are no standards when considering what constitutes quality artwork. Even those who are not artistically inclined will recognize that the requisite skills and imagination required to paint a masterwork or the years of tradition and experience that go into artisan level handcraft are not quite the same as enjoying a paint by number board or craft kit. There’s nothing wrong with painting by numbers or using prepackaged craft projects which can actually help people gain valuable skills in those mediums. We recognize the benefits in such pursuits but place a higher value on the work of those who engage more deeply with the creative side of the process in their chosen artistic discipline. I think of a talented metalsmith and jeweler who got her start dabbling in jewelry making with simple beed kits. Anyone who could read the instructions and possessed reasonable dexterity could have completed the kits, had fun while doing so, and been rewarded with an attractive necklace or bracelet. But those experiences sparked something deeper in this woman and she was able to use them as a springboard to become a successful jewelry artisan. Creative maturity follows many paths.
I am grateful for all those who have labored over the years to call attention to the diverse group of visual artists working in our community. From the earliest days of Arts in McNairy’s existence a dedicated visual arts committee has supported a vibrant regional scene of first-rate artists and artisans. Off the top of my head I can think of local exhibits and receptions that have included: painters, potters, glass artists, sculptors, folk artists, photographers, muralists, collagists, textile artists, media artists, illustrators, and others whose works defy tidy categorization. The committee has hosted workshops and learning opportunities for visual artists and made a popular annual student art show—the latest installation is now hanging in the Latta galleries—a staple of the organization’s activity. Embracing the opportunity for creative collaboration with other AiM programs, the committee partnered with the heritage arts chair to give the community stunning works of public art like the two widely acclaimed Rockabilly Highway Murals by Brian Tull, and Lanessa Miller’s “Quite the Thing” that now graces the Latta Theatre, fittingly commemorating that space’s live music heritage. In 2016 the committee curated an exhibit of incredible local artists for the Nashville Arts at the Airport project. That display was seen by thousand of international travelers and it offered, perhaps, the most accurate reflection of our county’s creative diversity and highlighted AiM’s inclusive approach to the visual arts.
I remember receiving a text from a friend who was passing through the Nashville Airport one evening. It said something like, “Wow! Who knew McNairy County was so rich in visual artists?” My reply was something like, “We did.”
This post originally appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal