For the past few years, I have essentially worked as a roving curator seeking out new artists and projects for Institute 193 and occasionally finding time for my personal work. I am on the road constantly: crisscrossing the Southern United States, meeting people, visiting artists, and making pictures. Things happen along the way.
This past fall, I was driving from Atlanta to Dallas, a short twelve-hour jaunt, to deliver some paintings. Around sunset, I pulled over to photograph a roadside memorial near Cuba, Alabama. I had been talking to my mother at the time (I know, distracted driving) and our heated, but lovely, conversation had made it slightly more difficult to slow the car down while crossing multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic. As a result, I was much farther away from my subject than usual. I hung up the phone, jumped out of the car, and zig-zagged through one hundred yards of un-mowed wet grass and weeds to the wooden cross. I typically run along the highway shoulder, but it was narrow; the sun was setting; and one of my obvious but unstated artistic goals of my project is to NOT become the subject of a roadside memorial. The irony would be too much for me to posthumously suffer.
After a long slough through the mud and weeds, I bent down and took the picture. I ran back to the car, tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, put my foot on the brake, and watched a small light on my dash flash the words: NO KEY FOUND. And that is precisely the moment when things got interesting.
“Where the Tennessee River, like a silver snake, winds her way through the red clay hills of Alabama, sits high on these hills my hometown, Florence.” –W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues
We have written many times of our community’s rich musical legacy. The Shoals has a very notable place in modern music history; but, that history reaches much further back than many realize. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was born and raised here in Florence in the late 19th century. Discovering a love of music at a young age, he took up the cornet and participated in acapella vocal lessons while attending grammar school. Later, after receiving his degree from the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, he became a teacher and briefly worked in a piping company before ultimately pursuing music as his true passion. His contributions in shaping the blues were influenced by the African-American musical folk traditions he experienced during his travels across the South, with “Memphis Blues” marking the beginning of his musical career.
For over 30 years, The Shoals community has hosted the W.C. Handy Music Festival. “Handy Fest,” as the locals call it, provides a few moments of unrivaled fun – in the middle of what can be a long, hot summer. Many of us anticipate the event all year and even the most confirmed homebodies spend multiple evenings out and about, listening to live music, visiting with friends, and exploring the community during festival week.
Newsletter #18 notes special features on our website—like our ongoing Basics Highlights and our upcoming Summer Reading (+ more) event beginning July 14.
We also have new events on the calendar at The Factory, like our second “Friends of the Café” dinner on July 25. The dinner features chef Vivian Howard and is a benefit for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Visit here to register.
I feel a certain kinship with Vivian Howard, even though we’ve never met. We both left home at an early age, finding big lives and successful living elsewhere; we also both followed our inspirations as they directed us back to our regional homes, where we’ve found hard-won fulfillment. Vivian works with food as her medium, much in the way that Alabama Chanin works with cotton jersey. She explores regional food traditions and seeks to translate them into a modern light.
We are thrilled that Vivian Howard will be the featured chef for the month of July in our café, and also visiting us here at The Factory on July 25th for our second “Friends of the Café” Piggy Bank Dinner, benefiting the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Friend, inspiration, and collaborator Anna Maria Horner has been featured on our Journal several times. She is a multi-talented woman fluent in more than one creative medium, from her imaginative books and fabric design to fine art. Natalie and Anna Maria’s friendship has only continued to grow as they connect over everything from food and family, to sewing and gardening.
Since we last featured Anna Maria on our Journal, she has added child number seven to her large and happy home. She, her husband Jeff, and their children (aged 1 to 22) live on two acres of land in Nashville, Tennessee. Anna Maria’s ability to balance her life as a mother and entrepreneur is truly remarkable.