Custom made
Folk Fest showcases raw talent

Janie Wilkins lounges on her sofa, usually with her dog Buddy by her side, as she puts a paintbrush to canvas.

A self-taught artist, Wilkins finished her first piece in November.

"I needed a painting to go over my dog's chair," she said, "so I painted a painting of my dog in his chair to hang over the dog in his chair. That was the first time I picked up a paintbrush."

After finishing the acrylic painting of her 7-year-old brindle Boxer Buddy, Wilkins e-mailed photos of the piece to her friends and her induction into the self-taught, or folk art world began.

"Everybody wanted a painting of their dog," she said.

Wilkins decided to pursue her new hobby shortly after.

"I had such a positive response, I didn't really think I had a choice not to," she said. "I just started painting and painting and painting, and it just kind of blossomed from there."

The Norcross resident starts each piece by sketching the black and white striped border that outlines a second solid red border and is a unique signature of sorts on each of her paintings. Using a digital or printed photo as her guide, she then sketches the subject of the painting, usually a single dog but occasionally a dog and its owner, more than one dog or another type of pet.

Wilkins, who works as an intellectual properties secretary for a law firm, purchased a small tent in January to use at art shows and festivals. Her next showing is at Folk Fest 2009, which is in its 16th year as a showcase for self-taught art, outsider art, Southern folk pottery and antique and anonymous folk art.

"I'm really excited to be an artist in Folk Fest, (but) it's (strange) to consider myself as an artist," Wilkins said. "I'm nervous, hoping I'm well received and I'm filled with excitement about being a part of it."

Leading up to Folk Fest, which opens today at the North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross, Wilkins was working on a piece titled "Fuzzy Butts," which features the backsides of three dogs.

"The 'Fuzzy Butts' is from the dog park," Wilkins said. "There was a group of dogs greeting another dog so I captured it in a picture and I just painted it from that picture."

Wilkins planned to finish that piece and possibly start on a custom order as a demonstration of her craft for visitors attending Folk Fest. She will be sharing a booth with another artist, Atlanta resident Lois Curtis.

Dubbed the "world's greatest self-taught art show and sale," Folk Fest draws thousands of people to the Norcross area to see and purchase art ranging from paintings to pottery, and it's the only show of its kind in the U.S., said Steve Slotin, founder and director of the annual event.

About 100 galleries, dealers and individual artists are expected to display work at this year's Folk Fest.

"Each gallery typically represents anywhere between three and six artists," Slotin said. "There's a good chance you're talking about 500 or 600 different types of art. (The show is) huge. It's unbelievably big."

Those estimates don't include pottery.

"You'll see a huge range of southern folk pottery," said Slotin, who is not a folk artist, but does appreciate the raw form of artistic expression. He was introduced to the work of folk artists and began collecting pieces while working as a book salesman, a job in which he continuously traveled throughout the Southeast.

"One day I came across some Lanier Meaders jug pottery in Cleveland," Slotin said. "I discovered that all these great southern potters were right here in our backyards."

Slotin began asking people he met if they knew any self-taught artists and soon started his own collection of work, which he wanted to share with others.

"I wanted to turn everybody on to this," Slotin said. "I wanted to say, 'Look at this incredible resource we have right in our own backyard.'"

After inquiring about representing Southern folk pottery and art in a show in New York in 1993 and receiving a negative response, Slotin had another idea.

"They were so exclusive and so closed-minded about this kid of art form that I thought, 'I'll just start my own show that will be inclusive and will include everything under the great umbrella of folk art,'" he said. "There must have been a real need for the show because when we announced it, it just caught on like wildfire."

For 16 years now, Folk Fest has drawn folk artists and dealers from around the country to Gwinnett for one weekend in late summer.

"Gwinnett County has opened their arms and embraced folk art," Slotin said. "When other places around the country were questioning, 'Is it real art, is it important art, can we even consider it art since these people aren't trained?' the great citizens of Gwinnett looked past all that and saw the importance of this local art form, which stretches across the southeast, and they embraced it."

SideBar: If You Go

What: Folk Fest

When: 5 to 10 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: North Atlanta Trade Center, 1700 Jeurgens Court in Norcross

Cost: Admission Friday is $15 and includes readmission Saturday and Sunday, while admission on those days is $7, children younger than 16 are admitted for free

For more information: Call 770-532-1115 or visit www.slotinfolkart.com