Alabama Swang

(Originally published on MOLI 4/8/8)

A swing set looms large in the front view. In the background stands the quintessential one-room shack – an icon of Southern rural poverty. But the emphasis in this painting by Toby Hollinghead, with its bright colors and children running to play, is on joy. It’s evident in the hand-painted title across the bottom: A Brand New Swang Set.

“They abandoned the old tire swing, they moved up in the world!” the artist explains over the phone from Opp, Alabama, where she lives and runs her Grab Bag Gallery. “I grew up with tire swings, and they don’t have them much anymore.”

Hollinghead has had what some might call a hard life: Blinded in one eye at age 2, picking cotton alongside her mother, living off welfare and the land as a child. But like the 19th century impressionists’ work her mostly rural images recall, her paintings are about the light. Often, as in Rapture Circle, pictured here and available at the Marcia Weber Gallery in Montgomery, it’s a heavenly light. Or else it’s just the infatigable sun of the Deep South, where Hollinghead has lived her whole life.

Born in 1953, Hollinghead didn’t start painting until 1998. Now she’s a collected folk artist, in the tradition of Howard Finster or Laura Levine — although given the importance of God in many of these artists’ works, it would perhaps be more accurate to call them spiritual or gospel painters, rather than the somewhat patronizing f-word. It’s easy to romanticize these glimpses of a life so removed from the ones we live in modern cities like Miami, what with their crude lines and creative spellings (in Florala, it’s definitely pronounced “swang”) – and hard not to like their frank colors. Besides, is it so distant? I grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin, and relished the tire swing we had hanging from the oak tree in our backyard. As I reminisced with Hollinghead, who has a lilting, musical voice, you could twist it up then let it go and spin till your insides were pushing against your glottis.

I came across A Brand New Swang Set at Strickland’s Fine Art Gallery in Florala, a small, picturesque lake town that, as its name implies, strides the Florida and Alabama border, and where you can get lots of antique kitchenware and some excellent barbecue. I didn’t make it down the road to Opp (call it a missed opportunity, ba-dum dum). But I will next time I’m in this area. And I’ll try to come on Sunday, so I can hear the painter sing and play guitar at the Opp Church of God.

You can read more about Toby and see some of her paintings at the Marcia Weber website.

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