Japanese fabric artist among 5 at Elkin’s Smalltown Gallery
When artist Tory Casey rented a small storefront in downtown Elkin last year, she didn’t intend to open an art gallery. The one room building is the commercial equivalent of a tiny house, and her plan was simply to use it as her private art studio a place to make her paintings and show them to potential buyers.
Casey continues to work on her own art here, but she has compacted her studio area into a corner near the rear entrance. Otherwise the building functions as Smalltown Gallery, a venue for exhibitions by artists from different parts of the country and beyond. Its first exhibition opened in April. It’s off the beaten art path, but the 90 mile round trip from Winston Salem is relatively easy and scenic, particularly in autumn.
The latest show at Smalltown, on view through Dec. 20, includes works by five artists including Casey. It’s not surprising that music is an overriding theme, in light of the pervasive role it has long played in Casey’s life. She’s not a musician, but her husband and partner of 30 years is Joe Thrift, a luthier, old time music specialist and multi instrumentalist who has been involved in several bands, including the widely known roots rock group Donna the Buffalo.
Three of the current exhibition’s artists are also musicians who also play stringed instruments and specialize in old time music rooted in the southern Appalachians. Images of musicians and musical instruments are prominently featured in the works.
Highlighting the show and justifiably displayed up front are the fabric appliqu compositions of Atsu Azechi, a young artist from Japan. She’s not a musician, but she clearly loves American popular music. Her special fondness for the blues tradition is reflected in about half of her contributions to the show, straightforwardly stylized images of black men playing acoustic guitars and other instruments.
Many of Azechi’s subjects are anonymous musicians, but a few are identified as well known singers and players. A portrait of Elmore James appears on one of her handbags, while Big Joe Williams is portrayed in a small, square composition. Blues musicians are among the characters portrayed in Azechi’s small fabric appliqu book, “Song of Solomon,” which pays homage to Toni Morrison’s novel of that title.
The blues themed pieces definitely have a lot of appeal, but Azechi’s most striking and provocative works deal with other subjects. The show’s largest and most visually compelling piece is her “Motherland Japan with Nuclear Plants.” She has employed strategically shaped patches of brightly colored, decoratively patterned fabric and loose buttons to comment on Japan’s most disastrous environmental crisis of the 21st century to date, a nuclear plant’s release of deadly radioactive materials following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The black buttons sewn onto this piece in no uniform pattern aren’t mere decorative elements in an abstract composition; they represent the locations of nuclear plants on a festively colored map of Japan.
Among other standouts by Azechi are her portraits of two women poets revered in Japan, Akiko Yosano and Chieko Takamura. Takamura is portrayed nude alongside embroidered lines of poetry in Japanese. Also worthy of special attention is “Portrait of Atsu and Balthus,” a small self portrait in which Azechi, wearing thigh high boots, strikes a jaunty pose alongside her dog. The dog is named for the famous artist (aka Balthasar Klossowski de Rola), who in 1935 painted himself similarly posed with a cat.
On the wall opposite Azechi’s quilted art pieces is a selection of Howard Rains’ work. Rains, who lives in Texas, is a fiddler and guitarist whose musical interests are also reflected in his small watercolor drawings. Most are affectionate caricatures of respected elders in the field of old time string band music, but there are also several sketches of musical instruments and pieces of household furniture, as well as two small, expressionistic paintings of wild pigs.
Pete Sutherland, known for his work as a Vermont fiddler, is represented by a selection of collages he makes by cutting papers chosen for their colors and patterns. His compositions take the form of simple scenes that include images of musicians or reference musical themes. In “Boombox Boy,” for example, a barefoot boy wields a broom to sweep a porch while listening to an old fashioned audio player on a nearby rocking chair.
Casey is showing a group of paintings that adopt her signature bird’s eye perspective on boldly colored scenes of ordinary American life. Most of them incorporate images of people playing music. Several occupants of the urban homeless camp in “Boys, My Money is Almost Gone” are shown playing musical instruments. And in “The Lomax Recordings” Casey vividly imagines Alan Lomax, a pioneer American folk music researcher, in several different settings where he found lively musical traditions being carried on.
The gallery is also showing a selection of shirts designed by Ken Inoue and handmade under his “Joke on the Puppy” label. Inoue, another old time string band musician, is a Japanese American who spent 30 years in North Carolina before returning to Japan, where he now lives. He specializes in shirts made of fabrics with lively image based patterns. Music is directly referenced in one of his shirts, whose fabric features images of traditional Mexican Mariachi musicians.