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Fine Craft Right Here in Chattanooga

Mixed media by Alexa Lett on exhibit at Tennessee Craft Handmade Here

A famous playwright once asked, “What’s in a name?”

ℹ️ Colleen Williams, member of the ℹ️ Southeast Chapter of Tennessee Craft, finds herself struggling with that same question.

“I don’t identify myself as a ‘craft’ artist,” said Williams. “I’m an artist who works in ceramic medium.”

Identity angst is a common sentiment among many members of the newly formed Tennessee Craft—Southeast Chapter. This is the newest of seven chapters of the statewide nonprofit organization, ℹ️ Tennessee Craft, which is based in Nashville and tasked with connecting the public with artists working in the fine craft tradition.

ℹ️ Alexa Lett, President of the Southeast Chapter, aims to change locals’ perceptions of what it means to be a craft artist. “We want to enlighten the community that there are traditional methods of artistry that should be saluted and celebrated,” said Lett.

Marjorie Langston, a glass artist for more than 35 years and vice president of the Southeast Chapter, emphasizes there is a difference between “fine crafts” and “crafts.” Langston’s art, historically called lampworking, takes years to learn and master. In addition to working as a full-time artist, Langston teaches her medium everywhere from the ℹ️ John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, to the University of Miami and in Ireland.

Sculpture by Colleen Williams

Ensuring that fine craft artistry continues into the next generation is a heartfelt mission of this artist group. ℹ️ Lolly Durant, a textile and ceramic artist and secretary of the Southeast chapter, stresses the importance of fine craft education and mentorship. “There’s a difference between teaching and mentoring,” said Durant. She stresses that because the skills are often so difficult to master, it’s important to learn from someone who is actually working as a professional artist.

Originally founded in 1965 as the Tennessee Association of Craft Artists, Tennessee Craft offers members scholarships for continuing education and professional development. They also produce fine arts craft fairs across the state in addition to hosting their largest annual event, ℹ️ Tennessee Craft Week, each October.

Chattanooga served as the host city for the 2016 Tennessee Craft Week, months after the new Southeast Chapter formed. Thousands of tourists had the opportunity to watch live demonstrations of local craft artists at all of the Welcome Centers across the state, including those close to Chattanooga.

“Lolly was sewing her hand dyed fabrics,” said Lett of last October’s Craft Week event. “Marjorie was making her handcrafted glass beads. There were weavers, wood craftsmen, and silversmithing. The public stopped and watched; everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.”

This year’s Tennessee Craft Week runs from October 6–15. The Southeast Chapter will host an opening night reception on Friday, October 6 at ℹ️ Chattanooga Workspace. The weeklong event’s goal is to highlight the collective impact of craft artists on the state’s economy.

And there is no doubt the arts play a significant role in Tennessee’s economic development. According to a study recently released from Americans for the Arts, the annual economic impact of the nonprofit arts and cultural industry in Tennessee exceeds $1 billion. In the greater Chattanooga area, the annual impact is $183 million.

Jewelry designed and crafted by Marjorie Langston

“Arts and culture drive activity and add value to Tennessee communities—promoting and increasing quality of life, inclusion, economic development, tourism and provide a more balanced education for our children,” said Tennessee Arts Commission Executive Director Anne B. Pope. “The arts are a vital tool for attraction and retention of businesses and help build stronger communities by enhancing the distinctive character of Tennessee places.”

Since the Southeast Chapter’s inception, Chattanooga WorkSpace has served as its home base. Located at 302 West Sixth Street, across from the downtown YMCA, Chattanooga Workspace opened in 2013 and currently has 35 local artists who rent studio space in the building.

“When we started this chapter I went to Kathy Lennon (Director of Chattanooga WorkSpace) because I thought this would be a good hub—a home port for Tennessee Craft Southeast—because it’s such an artful community,” said Lett. The space has more than fulfilled Lett’s expectations. The Tennessee Craft—Southeast Chapter, which includes Bledsoe, Bradley, Hamilton, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, now boasts 50 active members.

In May 2017 the chapter hosted Handmade Here, a Tennessee Craft artist exhibit, at the Chattanooga WorkSpace gallery. The show was a huge success for the young chapter, with more than 20 local artists exhibiting their handmade work. Although many of the chapter’s members also have their studio at Chattanooga WorkSpace, anyone can join Tennessee Craft.

“You don’t have to be a professional artist to join,” said Williams. “It’s about learning.” Education, collaboration with fellow artists, and opportunities to share their work are just a few of the reasons why artists chose to join this 50-year-old organization.

Although an artist for years, Colleen Williams was able to enter the 2016 Tennessee Craft Week fair as an emerging artist due to recently relocating to Chattanooga from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Not only was she able to network with hundreds of Tennessee artisans, Williams ended up taking home the Best Emerging Artist Award.

Original works by Charlie Pfitzer(pottery) and left to right Carrie Pendergrass (first three abstracts) and Lolly Durant.

Lett tells a similar story about her initial involvement with Tennessee Craft. Lolly Durant urged her to enter the 2015 Handmade Here exhibit when Knoxville hosted the annual event. Lett quickly joined the organization to be able to participate and pulled a piece of artwork off her studio wall to send with Durant to Knoxville. A few weeks later, Lett was awarded Best in Show for her piece. She was hooked.

Lett thinks this is a great time to be a craft artist in Tennessee and in Chattanooga. “It’s innate to our region,” said Lett. “I think our community as a whole is much more open to appreciate the artistry that goes with craftsmanship on this level.”

Williams, the most recent transplant to Chattanooga, agrees. “It’s a real pleasure to come into a state that has an actual state-run organization because you can feel the support. That sense of camaraderie and feeling of support from your peers and the organization, that’s pretty great.”

Although the public perception of fine craft art has evolved, these artists believe a certain stigma associated with being a craft artist will be an ongoing challenge for the Southeast chapter to tackle. Lett suggests one key to overcoming this hurdle is more collaboration—something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to different art groups.

“I think a more fluid integration of Tennessee Craft trying to be a part of the broader arts community—all of us helping each other as opposed to just being individual entities,” said Lett. “I know that’s difficult at times, but it can be done.”

For these Southeast Tennessee craft artists, the goal is to bring the community together by sharing their work, and their love for fine craft, with as many people as possible. So no matter what it’s called, these artists are here to stay and to ensure their craftsmanship lives on for the next generations to enjoy and appreciate.

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Photography by Steven Llorca

This story was originally published in Chattanooga Magazine.

In a Positive Space

Ali, Wilson, Breckin and Justin Kay left to right)

Swaddling an Italian-inspired landscape painting in bubble wrap to be shipped to a customer in Denver, ℹ️ Ali Kay pauses to talk about an intriguing series of art pieces on one wall of her studio. Red, peony-like blooms loom large on canvas squares amid gardens of orange rust and green copper patina. To get this rustic European “reactive” look, she explains, she applies a layer of black paint containing iron particles, creates the flower images, then sandwiches them with more iron before spraying the pieces with a special acid that oxidizes within a few hours. “It kind of has this push and pull, back and forth, with the acrylic painting and the iron paint kind of mixing together,” says Kay. “By the next day, it’s completely changed.”

Kay, 33, a muralist who moved to Chattanooga in 2013—she and her husband Jason drove their rented U-Haul truck straight from Houston to her Chattanooga WorkSpace studio before heading to their new home—has since made a name for herself as a go-to artist for all types of imaginative commissions. One of her most-recognized local creations depicts a goggle-clad boy aviator on a vivid brick wall in the 1400 block of McCallie Avenue. She has also painted murals and faux finishes for numerous homes and businesses, including images of foundry workers for MetalTek International and, more recently, a 5-foot-by-6-foot portrait of the iconic Little Debbie for ℹ️McKee Foods in Collegedale. And Kay, who has won several awards from the American Society of Interior Designers, has become a sought-after instructor for portrait, landscape and reactive painting workshops across the U.S.

Kay instructs students at Chattanooga Workspace during a workshop.

Originally from West Bend, Wisconsin, Kay has no trouble remembering her first commissioned art piece: A drawing of her sixth-grade teacher’s daughter and granddaughter, for which she earned $20. As a teenager, a friend paid Kay to paint a large underwater scene in a bathroom; by the time she was 16, she was working with a designer who hired her to paint furniture and walls.

Fresh out of high school and newly enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 2003, Kay launched her own decorative painting business, Positive Space, and began concentrating on murals. Seven years later, she and her husband moved to Houston for his new job, and she quickly built a new customer base amid a booming economy and a proliferation of upscale homes. In one house, Kay filled an open space beneath a stairwell with funky, brightly colored peacocks and enormous tropical flowers. For another client, she added gigantic rose-colored tulips to an elegant bathroom to match the ones in the antique-style sink. In children’s rooms, she painted princess scenes and flowers, cars, planes and trains and, in her own home, a chipmunk’s-eye view of tall autumn trees reaching for the blue sky.

Many of her murals showcased chandeliers, and more than one pleased client hired her to paint scenes in the rest of the house. “One idea spurs another,” Kay says. “The gears start turning and I integrate the home owner’s style.”

One of Kays more recent works of art “New Day” which was created using acrylic paint.

After moving to Chattanooga, she continued to paint oversized wall murals on canvas and send them to clients for installation in Houston and elsewhere. These days, she does more small paintings and corporate art pieces, partly because her personal life has changed so dramatically and such projects are easier to manage.

In 2010, not long after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, Kay and husband Justin volunteered to travel there with a non-profit organization to help a group of orphans. Almost immediately, the couple felt a “calling” to adopt and, back at home, started researching the possibility. In spite of discovering they didn’t meet the criteria—in their 20s, they were too young, and hadn’t been married the required 10 years—they vowed not to give up.

“It was always in the back of my mind, that maybe I would want to do that at some point,” Kay says. “But I think almost anyone—when you see the need in a place like that—feels the impact. We felt like that was what God wanted us to do. It wasn’t because we couldn’t have children. We would have adopted 10 if we could take them home.”

Commissioned by Houston based Anything But Plain and designed by Slovack-Bass, Kay completed this spectacular entryway mural.

By the time Wilson came to live with his new mom and dad last fall, Kay had given birth to Breckin, now two years old. Wilson, seven, who is fluent in English and Creole (not the New Orleans kind), has “really rocked our world in such a positive way, and his has changed for sure,” Kay says.

Independent, perfectionistic and dedicated—and unlike many introverted artists, an outgoing “people person”—Kay recently broadened her business palette to include national workshops, primarily in reactive painting, for decorative arts professionals. So many participants signed up for a class she offered at Chattanooga WorkSpace in February that she added a second one for the next day, and taught another in early April. The students, many of whom are members of the International Decorative Artisans League, learned how to incorporate reactive paints, plasters and textures into works of fine art.

A completed mural by Kay that was commissioned by MetalTek International in Chattanooga.

“It seems like a lot of the people who have a background in faux finishing and have successful businesses want to try something new,” she says. “They want to use some of the products and techniques that they already have, but do it more as a fine art and build their art portfolio. A lot of times it’s just because it’s easier not to be climbing ladders all day.”

Kay’s encouraging, one-on-one mentoring style has been well received. “I come from a family of teachers,” she says. “I always said I was not going to be a teacher, but I just kind of fell into it. People think they can’t do it and I know they can. They just have to go through the steps, so that’s fun for me to help them realize that.”

One of a half-dozen “originals” who set up shop at Chattanooga WorkSpace when it opened in the spring of 2013, Kay credits the art incubator for establishing her presence in a new city and giving her an outlet to meet customers and other creative entrepreneurs. “Now, with my business expanding with workshops, that’s the kind of thing I couldn’t do if I was just working out of my house,” she says. “Being able to use that gallery downstairs has been awesome, and Chattanooga WorkSpace has come a long way with our Open Studio Nights. Every month it’s booming. The last OSN Friday we had there were several hundred people here. You never know when a new project’s going to come along.”

When she’s not working, Kay and her family enjoy skiing (both water and snow), wakeboarding and snowboarding. During summer months they enjoy launching their boat on the Tennessee River and leisurely cruising the developing waterfront.

Persistence, she says, is key to any artistic endeavor, including her own. “And also not being afraid to take on something I haven’t done before, because most of the time I’m doing something I haven’t done before,” she adds. “I usually just say, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ And then I think about how in the heck I’m going to do it. But there’s always a way.”

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Story by Nancy Henderson

This story was originally published in Chattanooga Magazine.

Songs of the past inspire Chattanooga artist Jaime Barks

The songs of hometown churches tell a story about Chattanooga’s past. From Sunday mornings in church to family memories of loved ones lost. “My mom passed away about a decade ago when I was in my 20’s and she loved to sing loved old hymns,” says artist Jaime Barks.

Those memories, something that she never wants to lose. So with her paint brush and these hymnal pages gathered from thrift stores or yard sales, and estate sales, she is making sure they live on forever.

She mounts each page on wooden blocks. A light coat of paint and a sketch, and it’s ready to paint. “I use book pages or Bible pages, found objects, I love to paint on alternative surfaces, it always sparks your creativity,” Barks says.

Now that Jaime is a mother herself, her painting perspective has changed. “Something about seeing the world through a child’s eyes to me it’s just exciting because they notice things that grownups miss.”

And with each finished piece, she’s creating memories for other people, sparked when they see the background of familiar melodies. “People will share stories similar to mine, of their childhood, being in church, just special memories about the hymns and how it reminds them of their life experiences because that’s really why I started in the first place.”

You can find Jaime Bark’s art at the Chattanooga Market General Store near the Tennessee Aquarium. She also participates in First Fridays at Chattanooga Workspace.

Visit her website, by clicking here.

This story was originally published on News Channel 9.

Chattanooga Workspace presents Makers of 6th Street

This Friday, September 1st, Chattanooga Workspace host our monthly Open Studio Night! This month’s theme is “Makers of 6th Street.”

Along with our very talented current Workspace resident members, we will also be featuring guest artisans who used to reside here at 302 W. 6th Street and have helped us become the amazing Workspace community that we are today!

This is a free, family-friendly event offered to the community. Our Artisans, which occupy 4 floors (over 50 studios), will have their studios open to the public between 5:30-8:30pm. Each floor will feature guest artists, music, and demonstrations. Original works of art designed by the local artists will be available for purchase.

Hollie will be doing a torch painting demonstration on the 2nd floor outdoor patio, as well as presenting her work on the 2nd floor Artspace Gallery.

Hollie best describes this technique by saying, “Fire is one of the primal and elemental forces which shapes our world. My torch paintings are about this balance between control, destruction, and mesmerizing beauty. Charred into wooden panels using propane torches, they often feature flames as the sole source of light within the composition itself. The naturel grain of the wood radiates outward enhancing the effect of heat mirages and smoke. The combination of carefully controlled marks and fluid disruptions echo the fascinating paradox of the fire that gave them life.”

Featured Makers & Artists:


Big thanks to Chattanooga Face Paint who will be at the event on our 2nd floor patio and to our sponsor Mellow Mushroom, who will be catering our Open Studio Night.

From Tattoos to a Different Canvas: The Art of Brandy Burgans

There’s something unique about the canvas Brandy Burgans uses for her art. Chosen by her customers, but often designed with her own hand… She gets to live her dream, one tattoo at a time. “I think I’m fortunate and grateful that I get to do something artistic for a career,” Burgans says.

On this day, she’s helping disguise the marks of bad memories. “We were covering some accident scars she had from surgery when she was younger.”

But if you look around this Workspace studio, you’ll notice that pictures of tattoos aren’t the only displays. She’s now sharing her style on a new medium, with a different kind of ink. “I decided just to start sketching them, and painting them and it became a huge series.”

Wood pieces, left over from a restaurant remodel, now a big seller at the Chattanooga Market General Store. “If you have too much detail, it will get lost in the tattoo, but when you get a chance to draw it you can keep that detail.”

Pictures that come to life with pen and prove that no matter what the background, her art is catching on, with all kinds of customers. “It’s changing a lot, I’m definitely tattooing a lot of grandmas now.”

For more on Brandy’s work of any variety, visit her website.

This story was originally published on News Channel 9.