Above: Art sold in Black Belt Treasures. (Karim Shamsi-Basha)
As you walk into Black Belt Treasures in Camden, Alabama, nestled in the heart of the Black Belt, you notice something different. The place is not just a gallery that promotes area artists and exhibits work crafted by renowned artists, including the Gees Bend quilters and Charlie Lucas. And it’s not just an unexpected treat.
Black Belt Treasures transcends expectations.
It is the convergence of art, culture, geography, social nuances, prose, passion, renaissance and just plain Southern “Y’all come back now, you hear?” And it is an extraordinary cultural center.
“The Black Belt as a whole changed after the Civil War as agriculture began to change,” said Executive Director Sulynn Creswell. “People moved from the country to urban areas, and farming was no longer the basis of the economy. The lure of jobs in major metropolitan areas left the region without support. With the gallery, we hope to impact the economy and help people experience the cultural heritage of the Black Belt. We are educating tourists from all over the country about this place and how special it is, and about the creativity and ingenuity of the people.”
Creswell considers working at Black Belt Treasures the epitome of her career. She did not grow up in the Black Belt, but living in Camden affords her interaction with creative and inspiring people, some of whom are not even sure they are artists. She loves contributing to the local economy and supporting grassroots art movements that have birthed visionary work popular across the country.
The gallery opened its doors in 2005 and has grown from representing 75 artists to 450 painters, sculptors, potters, basket weavers, quilters and woodworkers hailing from 19 counties. And while Black Belt Treasures is in the center of a region known for poverty and lack of education and resources, it has helped economically revitalize the area through its continued support for the arts and culture.
“Our goal is to help strengthen the economy of the Black Belt. Many of the counties we represent have some of the highest poverty rates in the state,” Creswell said. “Becoming a tourism hub will assist people and change lives. We are intentionally located in the center of the region. The landscape, the beautiful architecture and the cultural heritage all tell the story of this place.”
Black Belt Treasures strengthens its presence in the community through classes in visual arts, basket weaving, ceramics and pottery, quilting, mixed media and photography. Black Belt Reads is another community effort to increase awareness of the written word. Authors such as Wayne Flynt, Ted Dunagan and the late Mary Ward Brown from Marion who died two years ago have participated in the book club. The gallery also offers workshops, demonstrations and hands-on instruction to share art with the community.
The talent pool in the Black Belt is never-ending. “The reason the people of this area are creative is because they use what they have to create. The Gee’s Bend quilters, for example, used their fabric scraps to make iconic quilts,” Creswell said.
With Black Belt Treasures, Camden may not be the art capital of the state, but it may be able to claim the title as “art capital of the rural Black Belt.” For residents and artists of the area, that is a title they love to live by.
Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning photojournalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at [email protected]