Live Active Cultures

Seth explores folk art in gritty downtown Sanford

Live Active Cultures
Butch Anthony

This past week I was thinking a lot about the circle of life. Maybe it’s because that damn Elton John song has been stuck in my head ever since seeing the theatrical re-release of The Lion King;if you caught me crying behind my 3-D glasses when Mufasa got creamed by the wildebeests, it was only because Disney hasn’t made a hand-drawn film half as good in the two decades since.

Or perhaps the tears were inspired by the early exit of Disney’s single largest shareholder, the most influential industrialist since Henry Ford. From an Apple IIc in 1984 (my first computer, with a 5 1/4-inch floppy drive and a whopping 128KB of RAM), to my soon-to-be-superseded iPhone 4, which I swear wept softly as it tweeted me news of his passing, Steve Jobs’ products have permeated my life. And if a gajillionaire dying at age 56 doesn’t hammer home how brief this existence is, just try upgrading your two-year-old iPod touch to iOS5.

Maybe it’s the Halloween season and its monthlong onslaught of macabre sights that has me morbid-minded. But, as Miami artist Jorge de Rojas reminded me last weekend, Halloween wasn’t always just about death and destruction. Before our modern obsession with carnage and corn syrup, Halloween had its roots in harvest celebrations: thanks for the bounty reaped, and hope that the now-dying fields would be reborn in the coming spring. In that sense, All Hallows haunts are inherently optimistic, as Stanley Kubrick insisted to Stephen King that all ghost stories are, because they assume there is some form of afterlife.

It’s appropriate, then, that I ran into Rojas on Sanford’s First Street, a place that has experienced its own resurrection. Following many years and millions of dollars in redevelopment, this suburb north of Orlando boasts a charming red-brick main drag populated with interesting independent shops and eateries. It’s a bit like Winter Garden’s Plant Street, minus the magnificent theater and slightly creepy Pleasantville polish; here, the gentrification left room for a bit of grit.

That theme – reviving the past without rubbing off all the rough edges – was a common thread in my recent visit to the Jeanine Taylor Folk Art gallery. The third annual Spirits in Sanford show was my motivation for hazarding the 417 in last Saturday’s torrential rain, but to be honest it’s somewhat ridiculous that I’ve never been before. Longtime readers know I’m a fan of folk art, from House of Blues’ Festival of the Masters to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.

Jeanine Taylor’s Sanford gallery and studio has been around since 1996; as soon as I walked in and saw that she had a Mary Proctor similar to mine on display, I was sorry it had taken me so long to show up. Year-round, the gallery hosts a roster that includes established names like Ab the Flagman, Theresa Disney and Carl Knickerbocker.

The artists on exhibit refute the misconception that folk artists are unskilled or unsophisticated; though formally untrained and fascinated with nontraditional materials, all display technical dexterity and a complex appreciation for cultural history.

For the single-day show, 10 designers – some from as far away as Ohio and Oregon – displayed their sinister sculptures amid cobwebs and caution tape. A few of my favorites included: Melissa Menzer, whose windowpane skeletons and cobbled-together creatures sport names like “The Perfume of Evil” and “I’m Going to the Party as My Owner”; Sue Losey, who makes charming charms from antique optometry lenses and pre-World War II stationery; Butch Anthony, who paints line-art skeletons over vintage portraits and sculpts animal bones into household objects (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre without the gore); and Dianne Waldron and Elaine Thomas,crafters of hand-sculpted flying witches and pumpkin people, respectively.

Though the collectible characters covered a wide range (from Monine Brocco’s 1940s pinup zombie to Rojas’ black cat riding a watermelon), all seemed to be reclaiming elements of the past to retro-invent a holiday more nostalgic and less nasty than our latter-day Halloween. After all of this month’s high-tech, high-intensity theme park tricks and treats, simple smiling pumpkins and handmade monsters sound like heaven.

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