Through photographs, soil, toy tractors, trash and found objects, two artists spotlight the nature and people of north Alabama in the Carnegie Visual Arts Center's "Artifact: Vision."
Featuring works by mixed media artist Spencer Nolen Laws and photographer Crystal Vander Weit, the exhibit showcases the artists’ encounters with and impressions of nature.
For Laws, a Decatur native living in Memphis, two questions drove the creation of his works, which are pieced together from forged steel, beams, soil from Limestone County, wood, metal, fishing lures and other found items.
“I am inspired by a phrase I use in my day-to-day routine. I ask myself, ‘What would I find to be useful?’ and ‘What would make it useless or ridiculous,’ ” Laws said.
Those questions started guiding Laws’ creations in 2015 while attending Memphis College of Art.
“In art school, you are there to develop technique and craftsmanship, but you’re really trying to figure out what your message is,” Laws said. “I always try to push my own boundaries as an artist. I am always edging out from what I know I want to make to what I find ridiculous. That is when making art becomes exciting for me. Frame a box filled with dirt and gilded gold? Sure, why not.”
Laws’ works for the Carnegie exhibit range from “Creature,” a found beam with iron animal feet, to “Seven Layers of a Southern Goodbye,” made from trash and soil from Pulaski, Tennessee, to “Wary,” a gun cabinet containing old black and white photographs, a gun cleaning kit and a mule shoe. Gilded on the cabinet's glass are three hobo symbols.
“In the '30s and '40s, hobos had a code they could write in front of places that let others know about the people inside. I got interested in the hobo symbols because hobos would come and ask my great-grandparents, who lived close to a railroad, for extra food. Their house must have had some kind of mark that said, ‘This is a good lady who will give you food,’ ” Laws said.
For “Wary,” Laws selected symbols he found the most visually interesting — “The owner is in,” “He’s got a gun” and “He’s got three dogs.”
“I built the piece around those three symbols. I made a gun, because I didn’t want a real gun in the gallery, and then I thought about the objects that would go with that person. It’s like, through these objects and possessions, I am making portraits,” Laws said.
Another featured piece Laws made specifically for the Carnegie runs from the entrance to the gallery’s back room. He titled the works, which feature power lines, towers, a home and plots of farmland, “The Air Between Us Part I” and “The Air Between Us Part II.”
“I got to the tour the space during the reception for Doug Baulos’ exhibit. I was like, holy moly, this dude went bonkers here and it was amazing. When I walked in the Carnegie, I knew I wanted to build what is there now,” Laws said.
Laws, who took art classes from Jackie Goode and graduated from Decatur High, currently works at Youngblood Studios in Memphis, installing public sculptures and murals.
“I feel like there is a lot of nostalgia in my pieces. I hope they encourage people to start paying attention to what’s happening around them. I’ve always kind of walked looking down and around. That’s how I’ve found those weird artifacts. Try to learn what’s going on and where things have been. Everything has a history,” Laws said.
Along with Laws’ miniature scenes and portraits featuring objects, “Artifact: Vision” features Vander Weit’s photographs.
Currently a freelance photographer living in Florida, Vander Weit worked as a photographer for The Decatur Daily from January 2016 to October 2018.
“All I ever did with my time off was I went out and explored places. Some of my favorite spots were Holmes Chapel Falls, the Sipsey Wilderness and the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge,” Vander Weit said.
Vander Weit’s passion for nature stems from her childhood and exploring the outdoors, which inspired, fascinated and delighted her. That love of nature drove Vander Weit to pursue a career in photojournalism.
“I always wanted to work with the environment and on environmental issues,” Vander Weit said. “For my thesis, I photographed a low-income community in Pennsylvania that was being forced out because of the fracking industry. Covering that story, I was like, yes, this is what I want to do.”
For the exhibit, Vander Weit selected images of north Alabama — from endangered whooping cranes at Wheeler to the Beavercreek Dam, home to the spring pygmy sunfish, a threatened species, to the waterfalls of the Sipsey Wilderness to the beaver moon above the Tennessee River.
Her photographs offer a peek into the natural wonders of north Alabama, some untouched by humans, others featuring the influence of man. Vander Weit hopes the photographs spark in viewers an interest in the outdoors and a desire to explore.
“There are so many people that have grown up in Alabama and have never even gone to the forest. I hope, with my photos, they will go out and see these places, because it is very abstract, but when you get there you realize how important it is that we keep these areas the way they are and appreciate what we have,” Vander Weit said.
The exhibit will remain on display through Feb. 1. Admission to the Carnegie, 207 Church St. N.E., is free with donations accepted. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday. For more exhibits curated by the Carnegie, stop by the Huntsville International Airport. On Wednesday, the airport and the Carnegie unveiled two new exhibits, Airport Airways on the second floor of the terminal building and the Community Art Wall in the breezeway connecting the airport to the second level of the parking garage.
Airport Artway’s “Friends and Family of the Carnegie Visual Arts Center” showcases paintings, sculptures and mixed media pieces by 15 local artists, and the Community Art Wall’s “Therapy Through Art” features works created by the Carnegie’s outreach program at the Mental Health Center of North Alabama and under the direction of the late Jason Sharp. The exhibits are free and will change quarterly.