The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 29, 2012

Athens headed toward a future as artists' enclave

The News Courier

— Art on the Square Arts League hopes to continue to foster dreams and help people achieve their goals in the arts. Here is an interview with ÅOTS president Diane Lehr:

Q: For a long time, Athens did not have an arts league. Yet, it seems to have a higher-than-usual number of artists, musicians and writers. Was it this abundance of talent that led people to form AOTS Arts League? Talk about our local talent.

Lehr: “MaCherie Kerr was a new citizen, now moved away, and a ceramicist in Athens about eight years ago. I had studied ceramics in New Mexico and was studying as an artist in her ceramics studio here. She expressed an interest to me in starting an art festival and an art group in the community. I was interested in the art festival idea and I immediately contacted Athens State University and Gail Bergeron, ASU professor of art. Gail was very busy but immediately agreed to be part of this group. That was the beginning and many local people such as Trisha Black and Lisa Milby have been part of the AOTS group for most of the seven years it has been in existence.

As time went on, more and more artists, authors, and musicians became interested in Art On the Square, and I was amazed at the talent in Limestone County. I have lived in Memphis, Europe and New Mexico, and sincerely was shocked at the abundance of creative people here.  Somehow, I thought that the other places I’d lived had the edge on art over this area. Living here has reminded me that art emerges out of all cultures. Art is a way we express our authentic selves, no matter what obstacles we face, and honestly, art often emerges as a way of surviving those obstacles. The AOTS group has struggled at times in communicating the importance of pushing art forward in community, but all in all, the city, county, Athens State University, TRAIL, and many, many other sponsors continue to agree that visual art and music and drama and dance and writing, and all art forms are as important as the color in the sky or the sounds of the birds in the trees. Our lives would be incredibly bland and sad without the arts. Art On the Square believes that and celebrates all the artistic talent here.”

Q: Is it one of the goals to include all genres of art, from fine art to photography, from singing to writing? Why was this important?

Lehr: “Expanding from a visual arts event to a year-round arts league is an attempt to encourage people to experience all art forms. I love visual art and I love music, since I grew up in Memphis. I also write, took dance as a child, and I sing very badly. I love working in mixed media and, frankly, I would be a Renaissance woman if I were just talented enough. I think lots of people feel that way. They love it all. I saw a play last year at Athens State that I hope AOTS can produce for this community. It was spectacular and with local actresses including Karen Middleton. I also love local author Kelly Kazek’s book, ‘Fairly Odd Mother: Musings of a Slightly Off Southern Mom.’ I recently worked with musician Matt Prater, when he played for a Spirit of Athens event. He is a local singer and songwriter and his statement to me was, ‘I know I’ll be happy if I just follow the art.’ He is an incredible musician, as are so many locals like Barry Kay, The Charles and Grant Show, Kristi Coughlin, and Jana Pettus to name a few. And remember that Limestone County also produces musicians like the up-and-coming Alabama Shakes, who will probably be on the Grammy Awards in a year or two, and world class fiddlers who go on from here and the Fiddler’s Convention at ASU, to make it big in Nashville. I am also literally blown away by the visual artists that come from this area. There are too many to name individually, but come and see them at Art On The Square on Sept. 8. There are painters, sculptors, photographers, ceramicists, glass artists, jewelers, and mixed media artists beyond compare. Santa Fe, N.M., is the third largest art market in the country. Talented artists from all over the world move there and succeed. I tell you, the artists that AOTS brings to downtown Athens each September could stand in competition with those artists in Santa Fe and succeed in that market easily. Seriously, they are that great. Although I can’t mention everyone, I must say that this area has great talent all around, and it’s been such a treat to get to know that and to see them realize their talent.

Q: How does the arts league help foster young talent? Is it important for local children to know we have such a group here?

Lehr: “We work diligently to make the KidsZone at the festival all art and always free. That was Gail Bergeron's passion when we started out. She said it over and over, ‘All art, always free to all children.’ Gail and Trisha Black knew that children would bring their parents into the Art Addicts’ Club, because children aren't afraid to express themselves and they long to create. Then their parents follow the children and remember what it means to become passionate about art. It’s a God-given gift to be creative in some way. We all need to create something and to feel the joy of expressing that part of ourselves. We all need to appreciate the talent of great artists whose work speaks to our very souls. We have been so fortunate to have great people of vision like Lisa Milby who took on the task of developing the early projects for our children's art camps and for Jennifer Rosso of Athens Middle School who has made the KidsZone the most creative place to be in the State of Alabama on that second Saturday in September each year. Her vision has been remarkable. All the members of our board and committees agree about the importance of children growing up in a community that invests in cultural and artistic happenings. If it is a naturally occurring phenomenon, then your community naturally will be more colorful, more musical, more beautiful and steeped in interesting people for future generations to know. People don’t leave interesting hometowns forever. They leave dying hometowns. Art On the Square makes Athens a little more interesting because it gives all the artists a place to express their talent. That’s good for the young people who will someday be the leaders in the community.”