Story by Michelle Jameson | Photos courtesy Steve Slotin
Steve Slotin knows a thing or two about self-taught art. From the odd and unusual to the historical and sacred, he’s seen just about everything. Home Magazine talked with Steve about how it all started:
How long have you been in operation? We’ve been in business for 25 years.
How did the love of collecting and auctioning this type of art begin?
I used to sell Cliff’s Notes all around the Southeast and started noticing Southern face jugs and self-taught art in some of the small locations where I serviced. Everywhere I went I would ask the local folks if they knew of someone who made art, and I just went off the heated path and started visiting artists and interesting environments. In these small towns the local eccentric artists are usually pretty well known.
Eventually, I became more interested in the new discoveries (rather) than selling the books and I was fired. At the time, the only place to buy and sell Southern self-taught art was at the Outsider Fair in New York.
I thought it would be fun to set up a show in Atlanta to let the local folks see what a treasure they had in their own backyard. In 1994, I started a show called Folk Fest and every year until last year, we hosted 100 galleries, dealers and artists and between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors each year. We started the auctions a few years after that as people kept asking us if we would be able to sell things for them. And it turned out to be a big success.
What is considered outsider art?
I prefer the term self-taught to be honest, although “outsider” falls under this umbrella. Self-taught art is pretty self explanatory of course — someone who hasn’t had formal art education and often in the case of the earlier self-taught artists, very little schooling at all.
The art they create is not originally made for public consumption, but rather for their personal fulfillment. They want to make their environment more beautiful (R.A. Miller’s Whirligig environment in Rabbitown or St. EOM’s Pasaquan). Or like in the case of the Rev. Howard Finster in Summerville, his motivation was to spread the word of God through his art; or W.C. Rice’s Cross environment — a more fire and brimstone message.
Sometimes it is to create a fantasy existence like creating Calvin and Ruby Black’s Doll Land in the California Desert. Or the desire to document their own existence — the social historians of their town — as is the case with Sam Doyle in South Carolina who painted all the town’s people from the first black midwife to the town prostitute. And Clementine Hunter of Louisiana who created memory paintings of her life on the plantation.
What are the qualities you look for when considering a piece?
I look for something that speaks to me. I have to actually like the work and want to live with it. That doesn’t mean it has to be pretty. Much of what I have in my personal collection isn’t pretty. It’s weird and strange and funny and unusual. I also like the story behind the art. I think about the motivations of the artists and what they were trying to say in their work. The backstory is part of what I enjoy about the art.
How often do you hold auctions?
I have two auctions a year — April and November. We spend the rest of the time gathering the objects to sell and putting together the catalog. After a sale, we ship out about 600 boxes, so it takes a little time to wrap up.
Where do you acquire much of the art?
We’ve been in the business a while, so people will often contact us and send photos of the items they come across. What’s really fun is getting photos from people who have been collecting for years and have things that we haven’t come across before. For instance, this (past)auction, we (sold) an entire collection of Afro Erotic drawings that are just outstanding.
How many pieces were in the April auction?
This (was) a big one. There were 1246 lots — some lots had several pieces in them so there is a lot to look at.
Between calls and online bids, roughly how many people participate in the auctions?
We generally have about 300 people who come to the auction hall and participate in person. It’s a really fun crowd. We cater the auction, and we have a full bar so it’s a festive event. In addition, we have 10 phone operators who assist bidders who can’t make it in person. The calls are going out to folks all over the U.S., England, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, etc. There are usually about 200 phone bidders. Some are only on for a single lot, some like to bid on things all during the sale. Most of the bigger sales take place on the phone.
We also execute left bids for people. They leave a budget and we bid on their behalf. Again, about 200 people bid this way. Some leave a single bid, others leave a long list.
The online portion is really interesting. We generally sell about 30 percent of the pieces online. Over the course of a sale, there will be about 100,000 visitors looking at the auction. Several thousand will leave bids in advance of a sale, and about 15,000 will be watching a bidding live during an auction.
Describe the average collector of folk art?
This is all over the board. We have our older collectors who have been doing this for years and love coming to the auction to add to their collections and visit with old friends. It’s a very nice group of people, many of whom have been friends for years. We also have young hip folks who are just starting out.
There is something for everyone — from the museum quality masterpiece to the very affordable starter piece. Auctions are a fun experience. People that are willing to stick and stay (and there are people that sit the entire 10 hours a day) will definitely find some amazing things at great prices.
Do you keep any for a personal collection?
We haven’t been buying much for our personal collection lately. Really, it’s because we have three daughters in college and we had to prioritize. But also it’s difficult to do both things, put together an auction that has amazing new things each time and try to find things for ourselves. I really just love putting everything out there to showcase the breadth of what self-taught art is.
What is the most a piece has ever sold for?
The highest price we ever sold a piece of self taught art for was Sam Doyle’s first Black Midwife from the Chuck and Jan Rosenak Collection. They authored the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art for the Folk Art Museum in New York and this was their marque piece.
Do you have a piece that holds a special place in your heart?
The first things I ever collected were Lanier Meaders face jugs. He was from Cleveland, Ga., just a few miles from a summer camp where I spent the best summers of my childhood. I hadn’t heard of Lanier when I was a kid, but years later when I was traveling around, I came across a face jug and it was so ugly is was beautiful.
The Meaders were making pottery in the 1980s like it was 1880s — hand dug Georgia red clay, mule-driven pug mill, wood fired kiln, handmade tobacco spit glazes. The proximity between Lanier’s place and my summer camp made it even more special to me. Lanier was kind enough to allow me to visit even when he was going through chemo. I will be forever grateful for that experience. I have a whole collection of his face jugs that I cherish, and there is one in particular that I covet above all others, a face with a snake coming through the nose. It’s one of a kind, and I love it.