They call it the "Voodoo Chair."
Festooned with beads, bones, antlers and horns, the painted wooden seat radiates a certain supernatural presence, as if the spirit of Marie Laveau might materialize out of the woven rattan.
“We don’t know anything about it,” shrugs Francis Allen, who bought the mysterious object at an auction house in Johnson City, TN. “But it sure is compelling, isn’t it?”
Allen and his wife, Leslie Lovell, have been collecting all manner of fascinating pieces for the past year, traversing the Southeast and filling their SUV for their new Roots Up Gallery. Featuring mainly self-taught painters and sculptors, Roots Up is a place that seeks to introduce people to the colorful and meaningful expressions borne in the rural backwoods and under the tin roofs of the South.
It’s also the only gallery in Savannah dedicated to the genre of folk art.
“We wanted to showcase a part of culture that many people never see,” explains Allen, adding that while folk art is created by those without a formal technical education, it’s also art for regular folks.
“Some people are intimidated by art, and we want to provide a platform for everyone to enjoy it. You don’t have to fear your lack of vocabulary.”
Occupying a former yarn shop on the second floor of a historic mansion, Roots Up rounds out the culturally-rich corner of Liberty and Bull populated by The Book Lady and the textile boutique Fabrika. Sunny and spacious, the wide rooms manage to display a wild arrangement of textures and colors without feeling cluttered. Panhandle Slim’s bright celebrity portraits hang near a small horse made of Spanish moss by Betsy Cain; Amy Lansburg’s driftwood women oversee a partition of handpainted “sign stories” by Missionary Mary Proctor.
“I like the formal setting, how it gives these pieces a clean, simple stage,” says Lovell, an artist herself who creates encaustic charms, garden talismans and tiny ceramic spoons.
Some of the names on the handwritten tags might be familiar, like Georgia icons Howard Finster and Willie Tarver. While the latter’s cardboard paintings are well-known, Allen and Lovell also procured around a dozen of his welded sculptures directly from Tarver’s widow that will likely draw collectors to Roots Up. Folk art enthusiasts will also be introduced to unexpected themes and mediums.
Roots Up officially opened May 1, and Michelle Harris of Saskatoon in Western Canada became its first customer. A regular visitor to Savannah, Harris wandered in and was immediately captivated by the movement and colors of Steve Burnley’s painting of a chicken on particle board.
“It’s very dynamic,” she declares as Lovell lifts it from the wall. Further inquiry reveals that Harris is a potter herself and routinely seeks out folk art on her travels.
“I like the idea of people expressing themselves no matter what their circumstances are,” she says.
Also a lifelong fan of “outsider” art, Lovell says she especially adores the vivid depictions of farm life by South Carolina artist Henry “Squirrel” Stone and his nephew, James “Squeakie” Stone. Squirrel and Squeakie are both self-taught, forging international art careers from their South Carolina porches.
As for his favorite, Allen points to the wire work of St. Louis artist Josh Cote.
“He’s really into rabbits as a horror symbols,” he says cheerfully, patting a pair of demented bunnies peeking out of an old steamer trunk.
Roots Up Gallery isn’t the only new venture for the couple: After being together for almost a decade, they married on April 19. They say their shared fascination with folk art is embedded in the foundation of their relationship.
“I’ve always liked having funky things around the house,” says Allen.
“Is that why you married me?” quips Lovell with a laugh.
Allen and Lovell—a former telecommunications CEO and a corporate graphic artist respectively—came to Savannah in 2008 for “just for a few weeks” and found themselves permanently rooted. While there are plenty of visitors-cum-residents with similar stories, these two native Southerners (he’s from Statesboro, she’s from Sanford, NC) spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy supporting causes in their adopted community. Allen serves on the boards of several cultural, environmental and socioeconomic non-profits, including Starfish Garden, Ogeechee Riverkeeper and ArtRise Savannah.
“Savannah is small enough to have what I call a ‘closed feedback loop,’” he explains. “You can see and feel the impact when you reach out to help.”
Though the newlyweds are modest about their inclination towards social justice, they agree that Roots Up Gallery might be considered an extension of sorts.
“There’s something valuable in almost anything a person makes,” muses Allen.
“The more you dig, the more stories there are.”