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Southeastern Folk Featured in Aquarium Exhibit

CHATTANOOGA, TN (August 21, 1997) -- The Tennessee River, the dramatic backdrop for the Southern Folk Festival, is a powerful inspiration for many of the region’s contemporary artists. It seems fitting that the Tennessee Aquarium which celebrates the river houses a powerful exhibit of the region’s most renowned folk artists.

The Aquarium’s Folk Life Wall showcases nearly 200 pieces representing the works of more than 100 of the best and most prolific folk artists in the Tennessee River region. The far-ranging collection runs the gamut from tools and baskets to toys and musical instruments to sculpture and dolls.

While the majestic beauty of the Tennessee River is a stimulus that gets creative juices flowing for regional artists, it is the river’s materials that spark the wildly expressive nature of great folk artists. Wood shaped by an entwined vine is transformed into a cane with a snake wrapped around it; fishing becomes a subject for painting. Even branches found by the water’s edge are made into sculptures.

The river’s inspiration is evidenced by the works of some of the more recognized artists in the Tennessee River region. The artwork of the late great artist Bessie Harvey was crafted from driftwood, glass, paint and fabric, and expressed her inner vision and ideas about southern tradition. For example, her driftwood figures titled, “Seven Days of Women’s Work,” depict chores such as cleaning, ironing, and washing, as well as shopping and going to work. And, ninth generation potter Jerry Brown’s clay jugs feature faces, and are modeled after those placed on Southern graves to ward off evil spirits in the 19th Century.

One of the more dominant pieces in the Aquarium’s collection, a Reelfoot Lake stump jumper boat, is a contemporary piece inspired by life in Tennessee. For generations, artisan Dale Calhoun’s family has been building boats for fishing on Reelfoot Lake. The unique boat is engineered for maneuverability in water as shallow as six inches and the oars enable the rower to pull the boat forward rather than backward, making it easy to navigate.

Whether rustic or refined the Tennessee River’s influence is evident in the artwork of Southern folk. And, what better tribute to the Tennessee River and its artists, than an exhibit in the Tennessee Aquarium dedicated to celebrating the river’s very existence.

Sherry Wagner was chosen by Cambridge Seven architect Peter Chermayeff and the Tennessee Aquarium to research and select the items for the Folk Life Wall.

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