The ‘outsider’ is ‘in’

Published 11:43 pm Friday, December 9, 2011

Betty Sue Matthews’ work on display

Betty Sue Matthews still has talent.

In her quiet, shy way, she’ll tell you that.

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And so will the throngs of folks who attended the artist reception for the “Re-used, Recycled, Renewed: The Art of Betty Sue Matthews” exhibition at the Troy University Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery Thursday night.

Matthews has gained a measure of fame for painting and cutting recycled pieces of metal, cardboard, boxes and wood to form figures of people and animals.

The “Re-used, Recycled, Renewed: The Art of Betty Sue Matthews” exhibition is from the Ron Drinkard folk art collection and includes 94 pieces of Matthews’ artwork.

Matthews is a folk artist from Brundidge who now makes her home in Tuscaloosa. Her artwork was first recognized by Brundidge artist and sculptor Larry Godwin and then nationally acclaimed artist, Nall Hollis, who is a Troy native.

The term “Outsider artist” perhaps best described Matthews a decade or more ago because her “gallery” was a hogwire dog pen enclosure in the front yard of her “little ol’ piece a-house” as she called it.

Drinkard, a product of the Henderson community, found Matthews’ artwork fascinating and became an avid collector.

“The first time I saw Betty Sue she was walking along the railroad tracks that ran parallel to her home,” Drinkard said. “I had gone to Brundidge looking for her and no one I asked knew who she was. At the railroad crossing there in town, I saw a lady walking along the tracks. I ask her if she knew Betty Sue Matthews and she said, ‘I’se Betty Sue.’”

Matthews directed Drinkard to her house and her outdoor gallery just down the tracks.

“When I saw Betty Sue’s artwork, I knew she had a special talent,” Drinkard said. “Betty Sue’s artwork makes me smile. It comes from the heart. She shows us things in a new way. In her way. It’s genuine, just as she is genuine.

“There’s nothing pretentious about Betty Sue. She’s for real and she paints because she loves to paint, never for profit. If she didn’t make a dime, she would still paint.”

Matthews’ first drawing pen was a stick she picked up in the yard and her first canvas was the sand in which she drew.

“I just liked to make pictures in the sand,” Matthews said of her first art experiences. “But I like painting better. I like color.”

When visiting Matthews’ art studio in Brundidge, folks were greeted by clothes flapping from a makeshift line, the growling of a chained dog and the meowing of a furry menagerie.

The clean-swept yard and the modest abode were indications that the artist wasn’t a wealthy woman – not in material things – but rich in God-given talent.

Matthews could most often be found painting on the front porch, with her purse slung over her shoulder, and surrounded by her feline friends. However, if she were painting inside – on the cook stove or the washing machine – then she would bring her work out and set it up on the porch, against the dog pen or in the bushes. Then, she would hold back the dog so visitors could get a closer look at the artwork of Betty Sue Matthews.

She used “just ol’ house paint” to make colored pictures and Godwin happened to see her work hanging on the hogwire fence. He encouraged her and gave her confidence that her artwork was “good.”

Drinkard also recognized Matthew’s unique talent. It was genuine and it was true folk art. Then, many years later, he wanted to share Matthews’ artwork with others. He wanted to share the smiles.

And, what better place than the Rosa Parks Museum?

For the “The Art of Betty Sue Matthews” exhibition, Drinkard chose paintings to submit that were purchased when Matthews was painting at her “studio” on Railroad Avenue in Brundidge about 10 years ago.

Then, he sought the expertise of Georgette Norman, Rosa Parks Museum director, in selecting the artwork to be exhibited.

Once Norman selected the pieces to exhibit, Drinkard had them framed for hanging.

When the exhibition was hung, it was even more exciting that either Drinkard or Norman had imagined.

“This is just the right time for this exhibition,” Norman said. “It is so exciting. Betty Sue takes things that are usually thrown away and makes them live again. She makes everything beautiful.”

Norman said Matthews’ artwork is a journal of her memories.

“She captures the essence of ordinary things,” Norman said. “Her paintings come from within. This is ‘soul’ painting. Betty Sue Matthews is doing what she was meant to do. She is genuine. She is authentic. She is a folk artist as opposed to those who are trying to be authentic. To be authentic you have to be real. Betty Sue Matthews is real and we are honored to have her work at the Rosa Parks Museum.”

Dr. Doug Hawkins of Troy has long been a collector of folk art and a collector of Matthews’ art for more than a decade. As familiar as he is with Matthews’ artwork, he, nevertheless, was very impressed with the Rosa Parks Museum exhibition.

“The exhibit is very well done,” Hawkins said. “All of the paintings are framed alike and you see the bright colors and how Betty Sue visualized things. That’s what folk art is about – the vision of the untrained artist.”

Hawkins said the reception crowd was very astute and everyone seemed genuinely interested in and impressed by the artwork. “It is a well-presented exhibit and a tribute to a outstanding folk artist,” he said. “Re-used, Recycled, Renewed: The Art of Betty Sue Matthews” will hang at the Rosa Parks Museum through Jan. 24. When the exhibition comes down, Drinkard said it will be available to other museums and art galleries.

The exhibition will have a permanent home in downtown Wetumpka as a part of the city’s downtown revitalization project.