Book Review Archives

Alabama Masters: Artists and Their Work

By: Georgine Clarke, ed.
Reviewed by: Jerry Griffies
Alabama State Council on the Arts, 2008
$25, Paperback

Think back upon ancient Moundville, the largest city east of the Mississippi River 500 to 800 years ago. Reflect how different our lives are from the lives of Alabama pioneers. Recall those leaders of the New South who wanted to industrialize Alabama after the Civil War—from iron and steel to peanut butter and missiles to high tech manufacturing.
Descendents from many cultures endured and overcame Alabama’s storied history and despite which, today, have retained many characteristics of their ancestors. Alabamians remain deeply rooted and attached to their State, neighborhoods, family, and church.

An awareness of history begins close to home. Alabama Masters: Artists and Their Work, published by the Alabama State Council on the Arts, provides us with a glimpse of the history of our artistic community, without which we would have difficulty learning something of ourselves, our cities, our past, and our future. The men and women gathered in this collection earned local, national, or international fame during the twentieth century. All were born in, or achieved fame in, Alabama. The past is a part of their present and of their future.

As editor Georgine Clarke, Visual Arts Program Manager at the Alabama State Council on the Arts, states in her preface, “…each artist presents important work and represents a significant connection to Alabama; [these artists show] the very important place Alabama is playing in American art history.” Drawn from museum collections prominent across the state, each artist is represented with a brief biography and an image or images of his or her work. In representing so many different artists and approaches, Alabama Masters invites viewers to ponder how various and complex are the ways that we see, relate to, and think about people, places, objects, and reality in general and Alabama in particular.

This coffee-table-sized paperback collection includes the work of such luminaries as photographer William Christenberry, the quilters of Gee’s Bend, and muralist John Roderick Dempster MacKenzie. Relative newcomers such as printmaker Scott Stephens, photographer Sonja Rieger, and quiltmaker Yvonne Wells share their visions of quintessential Alabama complexities. Also featured are the acclaimed folk artists Lonnie Hollie and Thornton Dial, among others, as well as such divergent talents as Nall Hollis and photographer Charles Moore, both of whom have shown the world the collective struggles and successes of the Alabama psyche.

Alabama has no shortage of unsung, heroic artists, but name recognition drops off quickly. Many who work behind the scenes can take solace that they might win prominence, or, failing that, at least find comfort in this published recognition. The stories being told are more important, in a way, than the art that’s made.

Noted fashion photographer Yousuf Karsh once wrote, “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.”

Alabama Masters is such a recording, dispelling the “Bozart” myth of H.L. Mencken that “the South is an awe-inspiring blank.”  Sept 2008

Jerry Griffies is an artist and educator living and working in Birmingham.

Editor’s note: To purchase copies of Alabama Masters, contact the Alabama State Council on the Arts at 334-242-4076 or visit