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A female artist colors a place for herself at Folk Fest

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

A good man is hard to find in Kimberly Dawn Clayton’s paintings. Heck, there isn’t even a good bad boy.

This painting by Kimberly Dawn Clayton was commissioned as the Valentine’s Day-inspired cover for Alternatives News Magazine in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

This painting by Kimberly Dawn Clayton was commissioned as the Valentine’s Day-inspired cover for Alternatives News Magazine in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The surfer girl in a bikini is a recurring motif for folk artist Kimberly Dawn Clayton, who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The surfer girl in a bikini is a recurring motif for folk artist Kimberly Dawn Clayton, who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

This painting of a bellydancer by Kimberly Dawn Clayton was inspired by the folk artist’s Tennessee grandmother, who, in her heyday, bellydanced, was a shoe model and played the banjo.

That’s on purpose. The art of the 39-year-old mother of three from Myrtle Beach, S.C., speaks to the strength and beauty of women on their own terms, not as refracted through the lens of any man.

In the fractured-in-a-thousand-different-directions, male-dominated world of folk art, the tropically colored, feminine creations of Kimberly Dawn, as she signs them, stand out as something a little different.

Clayton will run her own booth this weekend at Folk Fest, the annual extravaganza of self-taught art at Norcross’ North Atlanta Trade Center. If things go as they have in the past, she’ll arrive at the three-day event with more than 100 paintings — some barely dry from last-minute, 24-hour paint-athons — and depart after Sunday’s closing with only a handful.

That’s because amid the work of an emerging generation of Southern male folk artists — some who go by deep-fried handles such as Blacktop, Red Mud and Sweet Tater — Clayton has discovered there are women in the crowd shopping for art with a feminine perspective. And, importantly, they’re ready to buy (her prices range $20 to $2,000 but average around $200).

To be clear, Clayton is a far piece from being folk art’s Betty Friedan. Her paintings aren’t political in the least. What many of them show is pretty young women surfing, biking, hanging with equally attractive girlfriends, trying on girly clothes, strumming a guitar, wearing wings or lost in eyes-closed, rapturous thought.

What they’re dreaming of is unclear, but you get the idea that it isn’t affirmation from the likes of Blacktop, Red Mud or Sweet Tater.

“When I go through something in life, and we all have our day-to-day situations, my therapy is to paint what I want to be, what I want to feel,” Clayton explained. “So that when I look at it later, I think, ‘OK, I can do this.’

“And strength, that relates really well with other women, and they feel that [in the paintings]. That’s what makes them want to buy it, because they want to be there, too.”

Blond and a bit older than her typical subjects but just as physically active (she surfs, parasails and sky-dives), Clayton said customers often purchase the pieces for their kitchens or their teen daughters’ bedrooms, where an image of female empowerment can indeed be powerful.

But if the paintings sound like they’re ripped from the pages of Seventeen magazine, there’s a new and ongoing series of nude self-portraits that are finding favor with women more of the artist’s generation. Clayton said it felt “out of character” when she painted the first nude of herself, but that she now finds the exposure “absolutely freeing.”

“You have to accept that you’re not perfect, you are changing and evolving,” she said. “To me it’s beautiful because you see all the faults. There’s little badges like a C-Section scar — that’s a badge of courage right there. Beauty doesn’t have to mean that everything is beautiful the way the world says it is.”

Clayton has been wrestling with the world’s expectations most of her adult life, which is how the Tennessee native wound up a folk artist in the first place. She attended five years of college but never found her calling.

“I did it because my mom and dad wanted me to do something that made money, and I couldn’t figure out what that would be for me,” she said. “I tried it all. I even tried to fly a plane. …I ended up jumping out of them instead.”

But one of her grandfathers was a furniture designer, and she loved sitting by him when he drew, calling that “my best teaching.” A high school instructor in Chattanooga encouraged her artistic bent and took her to Summerville to meet Georgia’s most famous folk artist, Howard Finster, with whom she felt a connection.

Clayton didn’t start painting until a few years later after she heard on a radio trivia contest that the Mona Lisa was created on wood. She then picked up some scrap lumber at a construction site and pulled out a paint set her grandfather had given her years before.

“I tried it, and it was awesome,” said Clayton, who participated in her first folk show at Finster’s Paradise Gardens. “I mean, I couldn’t stop. I love it. It’s like your oxygen, like your morning cup of coffee. You have to have it every day.”

Event preview

Folk Fest 2010

Show featuring more than 100 exhibitors, 5-10 p.m. Friday. $15 (includes T-shirt and weekend re-admission). 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. $7 each day. Children 16 and under, free. North Atlanta Trade Center, 1700 Jeurgens Court, Norcross (follow signs off I-85 at Indian Trail Road/exit 101). 770-532-1115, www.slotinfolkart.com.

A few other female artists with work to watch for at Folk Fest:

  • Ruby C. Williams’ vibrant paintings on board of African-American women evolved from the roadside signs she paints for her produce stand in Bealsville, Fla. Around these figures, she scrawls sassy sayings such as, “Don’t set me up because you are not winning.”
  • When Myrtice West, a painter of powerful religious paintings, died at age 86 this year, Georgine Clarke of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, observed, “I don’t know if I would say she was trying to convert people, but she wanted people to understand what God wanted from them.”
  • The people and places of Nellie Ashford’s North Carolina childhood come alive in her mixed-media collages of paint, fabrics and found materials.
  • Cartersville artist Bailey Jack’s still lifes of plump arm chairs and unpopulated Southern landscapes make viewers want to plop right down in the peace and quiet. The compositions are enhanced by her handmade frames recycled from bead board, fencing, cabinet doors, window frames and more.

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