Profile: Slotin – fostering a growing family of folk art followers
BUFORD, Ga. (ACNI) – Steve Slotin will tell you he had no formal background in art, much like the self-taught artists whose works he promotes and sells at Slotin Folk Art. After aceing his own home-study course on folk art in the 1990s, Slotin now recites the names of these once little-known artists with reverence as though they were Dutch masters.
Through hard work and perseverance, he and his wife, Amy, have made their twice-yearly auctions top attractions in this burgeoning field. The Slotins have also helped make obscure artists folk heroes of sorts. Steve Slotin proclaims works by these self-taught artists “the greatest American visual art form ever produced.”
Slotin believes Americans’ enthusiastic acceptance of folk art was a reaction to the minimalist movement. “It was giving people something they could actually see and relate to without an interpreter explaining why there’s a white box in the middle of a white room,” he said. “Folk art was so genuine, so true and so wholesome that people really connected to it as soon as they were exposed to it. There was a sense of honesty to it – raw, expressive.”
The Atlanta native discovered folk art around 1992 while traveling throughout the South selling CliffsNotes, the popular study guides. “It got me into these rural areas, and I started seeing this unbelievable amount of art out there that no one was talking about and no one was showing at shows. That’s how I became a collector. It wasn’t until my sales of books went down and my purchases of art went up that I had to find a new job.”
The new venture was selling as much folk art as the couple could find for their auctions. “We struggled for maybe the first seven years, with every auction getting better. And our catalogs would get better,” said Slotin.
Their big break came in 2001 when the Smithsonian commissioned the Slotins to sell about 2,000 pieces from the collection of the late Herbert W. Hemphill Jr., who was a founder of the American Folk Art Museum and who had served as its first curator.
“That was when the folk art market and our auctions took off,” said Slotin. “From that we started to see other big collections come our way: the Rosenaks’ collection and Ruth West’s collection. We’ve sold for celebrities like Jonathan Demme and Penny Marshall. So we’re starting to get the who’s who of folk art collections.”
There has been no downturn in the folk art market, said Slotin. “As other fields in the collecting world go in peaks and valleys, folk art is still relatively young and so are our collectors. They have time on their side to buy and hold as their pieces continue to grow in value.”
For example, a painting by American folk art icon Howard Finster (1916-2001) sold for $16,100 at the Slotins’ auction in March. “In 1981 you could have bought one for a couple hundred dollars,” said Slotin.
Finster, like many self-taught artists of the rural South, had little formal education. Dropping out of school after sixth grade, he became a fundamentalist preacher and worked numerous jobs throughout his life. In 1975, at the age of 59, Finster had a “vision” and took up art. Working in a variety of media, Finster created works of art by the thousands. In 1990-1991 the Smithsonian sponsored a traveling exhibition of his paintings, sculptures and cutouts titled The Road to Heaven is Paved by Good Works: The Art of Reverend Howard Finster. A banjo player, Finster created album covers for Talking Heads and REM.
Many more self-taught artists of the South took up art late in life, worked in isolation and went unrecognized until the last 25 years.
The Slotins’ success has kept the hub of the folk art market in the Atlanta area, not far from where much of the works originated.
“From our area of Atlanta in the ’80s and ’90s you could drive in any direction and I could get you to a folk artist in a matter of 10 minutes to a few hours,” said Slotin. In Alabama were Bill Traylor, Mose Tolliver and Jimmie Lee Sudduth. In South Carolina was the legendary Edgefield pottery district. “If you went north up to Tennessee you started getting into William Edmonson, and up through Kentucky, deep in the hollers, you would be in Edgar Tolson territory.’
“So Atlanta was really the New York of the South. It was a metropolitan area that would embrace and collect this art,” Slotin said.
Unlike New York’s the tony art galleries that have exclusive contracts to sell a working artist’s works, acquiring and selling the works of self-taught artists is largely catch-as-catch-can.
“You would show up at their house and buy what they had available, and dealers made an effort to visit these artists on a regular basis,” said Slotin. “When someone showed up with a hundred bucks in their hand it was as good as gold.”
Evaluating the merits of these works can also be hit-or-miss, but Slotin says the process has become less difficult with more information now available. “I tell everyone, if you like it, buy it. That’s most important. If you’re building a collection and you want it to be worthwhile and it’s an investment, then reading books and going to shows and meeting the artists or the dealers who represent them is the second thing to do. From there you train your eyes. … You just teach yourself,” he said.
Folk art enthusiasts regard Slotin’s auction catalogs as helpful study guides. The books are eagerly awaited by dealers and collectors. Archival information, prices and images from past sales may be viewed online through www.LiveAuctioneers.com.
Slotin Folk Art’s auctions are conducted spring and fall at their gallery, a 6,000-square-foot former grocery store, in downtown Buford, northeast of Atlanta. The March auction attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
“Our auctions are very casual and a lot of fun. We throw out T-shirts. There’s food and drinks for everybody,” said Slotin. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever seen a crowd have at an auction.”
The Slotins also produce Folk Fest, an annual three-day show featuring 100 galleries and dealers specializing in self-taught and outsider art, vintage and modern folk art, and Southern folk pottery. Folk Fest 2009 will be Aug. 14-16 at the North Atlanta Trade Center.
“You never know what you’re going to find there … anything from anonymous new discoveries to the masters – the Bill Traylors and Howard Finsters,” said Slotin.
The Slotins, in their early 40s, have been married almost 16 years and are the parents of three daughters, who have not been drafted into the family business, although the option is open to them, should they choose it.
“They have their own aspirations and goals. They have no pressure to do it,” Slotin said, “but they’re more than welcome.”
Just like new collectors to the folk art field.
Visit Slotin Folk Art online at www.slotinfolkart.com.
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