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December 01, 2005   Email to Friend 

The Beautiful Black Belt
By Debra Davis

This unusual sculpture exemplifies how Black Belt residents turn ordinary items into art.
Alabama's Black Belt, aptly named for its rich, black prairie soil, has produced a passel of artisans who now have a central site to showcase their wares.

Black Belt Treasures opened in downtown Camden Sept. 30, and a quick look around illustrates the variety of talents that abound in the region. There are books written by noted authors such as Kathryn Tucker Windham and Sen. Hank Sanders. A unique iron sculpture crafted from scrap metal, pottery, handmade duck calls, beautiful paintings, gorgeous quilts, lifelike carved birds and striking white oak baskets are among the hundreds of items for sale in the gallery.

The brainchild of Alabama- Tombigbee Regional Commission (ATRC) Executive Director John Clyde Riggs, Black Belt Treasures is a non-profit organization. Counties included in the project are Butler, Bullock, Clarke, Conecuh, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Washington and Wilcox. The gallery is in the former McGraw-Webb Chevrolet Building at 209 Claiborne Street in Camden. The non-profit status, with a strong grant basis, enabled the corporation to buy the vacant building, which was transformed into a spacious, architecturally inviting gallery right in the heart of Camden.

Delia Brand is the executive director of Black Belt Treasures. She and Gallery Director Sulynn Creswell spent the past several months with scouts throughout the area, uncovering quality products destined to become treasures in the gallery.

"Before any work is accepted for the gallery, it is reviewed by a group of three people to make sure that it is a true, authentic Black Belt product," Brand said. "We are looking for upscale items that are of high quality, marketable and give a positive representation of our region."

The gallery has attracted numerous admirers and shoppers, including many from out of state. Those not familiar with the talent of the region are sometimes surprised with what they find, Brand said.

"The overwhelming response has been that they are amazed by the quality of the work and the craftsmanship that the Black Belt artists produce," Brand said. "I think some people came thinking that it might be like a flea market. They left with a very different and positive impression."

Many of the crafts, such as quilts made by elderly black women in rural Wilcox County or sculptures made from scraps of junk, are products that reflect many of the region's past hardships.

"A lot of these craftsmen developed their art out of adversity, from taking items found on their property and turning them into beautiful things," Brand said.

The large hand-carved and hand-painted rocking horses created by Larry Knight of Greensboro are a favorite among volunteers and others who visit the gallery. Knight started making rocking horses after moving to Hale County from Mobile, where he had worked at a chemical plant.

Each of Knight's rocking horses is different. Designed to be family heirlooms, they also are intended to withstand the wear and tear of an energetic toddler.

But don't think because the items are handmade they are poorly made or inexpensive. Black Belt Treasures isn't a souvenir shop where you can buy T-shirts or other typical tourist items. Some of the crafts are expensive - the rocking horses are priced at $600 and up.

Initial financing for the project was fashioned from a series of grants as well as support from the Alabama Power Foundation and the Alabama Bureau of Travel and Tourism. The project has been endorsed by the Governor's Black Belt Action Commission, which is co-chaired by Alabama Sen. Hank Sanders and State Treasurer Kay Ivey, a Camden native.

"This gallery is an outstanding example of the impact that individuals can make," Ivey said. "These artisans have been making their respective items for years, and now with these individuals taking the initiative -- including John Clyde Riggs and others -- this project is a reality. The gallery is a testimony that local folks can take ownership of a project for the economic wellbeing of their entire community."

Ivey said that growing up in Camden, she's been privy to the treasures of the Black Belt her entire life. Now, she said, the secret is about to be unveiled to the world.

"This is such an awesome opportunity for these artisans and the entire region," Ivey said. "We are opening the window of the Black Belt to the entire world. This is an exciting time for our area of the state." Riggs, who also grew up in the Black Belt, shares Ivey's excitement when he talks about Black Belt Treasures, not only the great reception it's already received, but what he predicts it will mean in the future.

"I think this will be an enormous economic catalyst for our area as far as opening up southwest Alabama and the entire Black Belt area to tourism," Riggs said. "It seemed as though for the last couple of years whenever you mentioned the Black Belt it was always associated as negative. It's time for us to make a positive spin on the Black Belt. We may be economically disadvantaged, but look at the richness we have to offer."

Riggs isn't just stopping with tourism, however, he was able to persuade Internet experts at the University of Alabama to come on board, and it is their expertise he is counting on to assure that the gallery's web presence will be state-of-the-art in every way. Visit the gallery's website at www.BlackBeltTreasures.com.

In addition to impressive works of original art, the gallery's website will offer a variety of gourmet food items such as special syrups, sausages, pecans and candies.

Gallery officials predict the list of food items will grow, however, most expect the art to be the backbone of the gallery's business.

Black Belt Treasures is open Monday- Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday's hours will be expanded during the holiday season and will be posted to the gallery's website.

An anticipated outgrowth of Black Belt Treasures is the development of tourism trails throughout the counties, introducing visitors to the great history and heritage of the region. This effort is under the coordination of Alabama-Tombigbee Tourism Coordinator Linda Vice. For additional information contact Delia Brand at (334) 682-9878 or Jamie Wallace at (334) 682-4234.

Special thanks to Hollis Curl, publisher of the Wilcox Progressive Era in Camden, for his assistance with photos and editorial copy for this story.

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