Local artists make impact in ‘New South’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Features Editor

Just a few short months ago, two local artists were laboring at their crafts in almost obscurity.

Today, their work is being shown in a Montgomery gallery and collectors are finding the way to their doors.

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Not too long ago, Judy Thornton was dreaming of a career in art – as a teacher.

Betty Sue Mathews was just doodling away her time.

Now, the sudden and unexpected recognition of their work has brought about new dreams and great expectations for a better way of life.

Nall Hollis, the artist-in-residence at Troy State University during the spring semester, found both artists fresh and exciting and their work "amazing."

Buzz Crump, owner of the New South Art Shop in Montgomery, wanted to feature Nall, an internationally renowned artist, in a show at his gallery and he also agreed to feature the two up-and-coming artists – Judy Thornton and Betty Sue Mathews.

The show opened May 20 with champagne flowing and a throng of art lovers rubbing elbows with the artists.

Thornton, a ceramicist, couldn’t believe she was there.

"I never really dreamed that something so wonderful could happen to me," she said. "It was so exciting to be there as a featured artist with Nall and to see the reaction of people to my work. My family came to share the experience with me. I just can’t tell you how good it made me feel."

Thornton sold three of her hand-coiled vessels at the opening and that day was a turning point in her career aspirations.

"When I saw that people liked my work and were buying it, I started to think that this is what I am meant to do with my life – that maybe teaching is not for me after all,"

she said.

Thornton has now made a decision that will take her in the direction of a full time ceramicist. After graduation from Troy State in two semesters, she hopes to receive a fellowship "somewhere" that will allow her to attend graduate school.

"I just hope that I can make enough money as an artist to take care of my family, because that is really what I think I am meant to do with my life," she said. "That’s really what I want."

Crump believes that Thornton has a good chance of making art her career.

"Judy’s work is very unique," he said. "The shapes, contours and the weaving of the coiled clay are fresh and original. What she is doing is amazing and the response to her work is very favorable."

Mathews is a folk artist whose work has collectors seeking her out in her hideaway house in Brundidge. Her following includes some unlikely folk art enthusiasts.

"Folk art and outsider art has always been hard for people of the South to accept," Crump said. "I hate to say this about the South, but there is the misconception here that anything that is not fine art is less than worthy. Folk art and outsider arts sells well in the North and on the West Coast and it’s just beginning to catch on in the South."

Because folk and/or outsider art is "catching on," Mathews is enjoying success she never imagined.

No, she never thought she would be featured in an art gallery. In fact, she never even thought of herself as an artist.

"I just draw and paint pictures," Mathews said. "And, now people are coming and buying my pictures. A man came from Tuscaloosa yesterday and I’m supposed to go up there somewhere and be in a show. I didn’t know I was an artist but I’m glad I am."

For Mathews, the recognition has been a bit overwhelming. Until recently, she lived a quiet, uninterrupted life in a small frame house hidden away by farm equipment. The most company she had was her prolific cats and a big, ferocious-looking, but friendly, dog.

"Every few days somebody comes wanting to see my pictures," she said. "I bring ’em out and spread ’em out on the ground and let ’em look all they want to."

And whether the lookers turn into buyers or not, Mathews always makes them an offer of a freebie when they start to leave.

"You want a kitty?" she asks.

And, and she has far fewer takers for the cats than she does her pictures.