In 2009, Francis Allen and Leslie Lovell sold 90% of their possessions, packed up the rest and decided to move to Mexico. While they waited for plans to be finalized, they decided to rent a house in Savannah where they had friends. “Savannah chose us,” Leslie told me when I visited the gallery last week. Savannah certainly chose well. Since their arrival, the couple has made it a point to be actively involved in the local art community. Allen has previously lent his business savvy to Slideluck Savannah, the “Before I Die…” project, the Starfish Community Garden and the Unchained Tour (of which he is the Executive Director & President). Lovell, a working artist, cites her involvement with the Re:Create co-op with giving her the confidence to move forward with a project the couple had been discussing since 2012: opening their own gallery.
Allen and Lovell married in April and opened Roots Up Gallery two weeks later on May 1. In four short months, the pair have made a name for themselves as Savannah’s go-to purveyors of American folk art. The lifelong collectors boast a gallery space filled with varied mediums (painting, ceramics, jewelry, woodworking, sculpture, and etching can all be found) and artists ranging from the obscure to the locally famous (Panhandle Slim) to the internationally recognized (Howard Finster, for example). Roots Up emphasizes accessibility (and affordability — prices of small works start at $10); the space and its owners lack any shred of pretension. Lovell and Allen speak frankly (but affably) about their artists, many of whom have been driven to create art either by divine intervention (stories of visions and ecstatic revelations are quite popular), the pull of nostalgia, or simply out of an innate drive to create.
The gallery’s ever-revolving curation focuses on that intrinsic need for self-expression, highlighting self-taught artists like Miz Thang and Leonard Jones (who seems to have particularly impressed the couple with his primitivist technique). The earnest kitschiness of it all feels fresh, the space is light and airy, and Lovell and Allen are two of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Roots Up, with its walls covered in etchings on tar paper, wooden doomsday clocks and cut-out paintings, is finally bringing the irreverent beauty of outsider art back into the Savannah mainstream.
Read more about Roots Up Gallery, Allen and Lovell, and the unique artists they’re bringing to Savannah in the full interview below.
SAI: When did the gallery open?
Francis Allen: May 1st.
SAI: And how has it been since then?
FA: It’s been good. It’s slower here in the summer but we get a fair amount of traffic. The art buying cycle is different with everyone, I’ve discovered that. I’ve also found out that it’s not for everyone. I just assumed everyone liked it.
SAI: “It” being folk art?
FA: Yeah, ‘cause it’s fun and affordable and accessible. But a lot of people don’t share that sensibility. You can tell — some people come in and look around 2 minutes and walk out. But they’re probably not people who would buy art anyway. It’s like they always say, “There’s two kinds of people in this world: people who buy art and people who don’t.”
Leslie Lovell: And there’s also visitors too. A lot of visitors are looking more for trinkets rather than something [bigger]. And we do try to have enough of an array that they could find something. But again, you never know what they want until they pick it up. I’ve said before, “I don’t think that’s ever gonna sell,” but then someone walks in, turns around, boom!, and makes a liar out of me.
FA: When I was thinking about tourists and visitors I was thinking of someone coming here and then going back home. But what I see is they’ve been to Atlanta, they’ve been to St. Simon’s, they’re going from here to Charleston.. It’s a road trip. Savannah’s a couple of nights and they’ll have to haul it around, so we offer shipping now. Hopefully that will make a difference.
SAI: But you’re trying to cultivate a local following as well.
LL: Definitely. We’ve been lucky with that. There are a lot of people in this town that collect folk art and it’s become a go-to place. They’ll bring friends here when they visit, which is nice.
SAI: You are unique among the galleries in Savannah because of that.
LL: It’s nice to be a go-to place. It’s more casual, comfortable.. [We like] being able to sit down and talk to someone.
SAI: How many artists do you currently have in your collection? How many are on exhibit?
LL: We have a large collection that we’ll eventually create separate exhibits from. I think there’s got to be at least 50 artists on view right now. It’s pretty diverse.
SAI: I know you’ve been collecting for a while. When did you actually start collecting folk art?
LL: Francis was probably into it a little while before I was. I’d find things I liked but I didn’t think of it as “collecting,” but they were in that genre of folk art. We’re very eclectic in what we collect. As Francis says: “You don’t need to have a vocabulary to come in and get a look at folk art and appreciate it, understand it, get some meaning from it or let it speak to you.”
SAI: That’s part of the beauty of it. That’s part of the attraction to it.
LL: Yes. Some people have been spoken to by god, some people just did it because they had a need to do it, like S.L. Jones. He started doing carving and doing paintings when he was working on a sharecropper farm. He started making things out of anything he could get his hands on. It was just that innate need to do something.
SAI: I’m really interested in how you find the artists that you exhibit and what that process is like. I know you travel and meet with these artists in their studios – what is that experience is like?
FA: Leslie, you’ve done more of that than I have.
LL: Once you meet some of them and start working with them, they’re the happiest to recommend friends or other artists they think we might like. They aren’t like, “Oh no, I just want them to have my art.” It’s a very open community and I’ve classified it as more of like a “hippie” community where they just want to spread the love.
FA: A lot of them work art fairs together. They don’t work together but they’re at the same events so they’re spending a long weekend two or three times a month together. They know each other pretty well.
SAI: So you meet artists through that network?
LL: And we went to art fairs originally so it keeps building on that. We go to auctions too.
FA: And people call you.
LL: Oh yeah, we get a lot of calls. Like Ken “Blacktop” Gentle – he got in touch with us. I like his art. It tells stories and I like the fact that it’s done on tar paper. That’s how he got his nickname “Blacktop,” he paints on the tar paper and etches back into it.
FA: Leonard Jones will call about once a month just to see how things are going.
SAI: So do they consider you representation? Or is it more complicated than that?
FA: They vary depending on their level of sophistication. One of the things that’s kind of sad is that most of these guys, especially primitive guys, live a pretty marginalized existence. And you’re basically viewed as a banker for them. They don’t have a gallery to show at, they just need some money so they call and say, “Hey, I heard you need some art.”
LL: But then there’s people like Blacktop and Peter Loose where we do represent them. We’re not exclusive but we do represent their artwork. So it’s mixed.
SAI: Are you interested in doing that in the future?
FA: We generally do do that with local artists, but again, it’s not exclusive. Like Jeff Ziegler, Panhandle Slim, Ken “Blacktop” Gentle..
LL: There’s several.
SAI:- Do you have plans to do special exhibits?
LL: Yes, we have the artwork on 3 that we want to do. Willie Tarver and JT McCord will be our first two. They’re both from central Georgia.
Visit rootsupgallery.com for information about current artists and upcoming exhibitions.