Recently I drove down some familiar Alabama back roads to visit a farmer. On the drive, I turned to Michele West and said, “if I could determine the outcome of this farm visit, the one thing that I would hope for most of all is to simply meet someone with a purpose-driven, passion and commitment to their cause for the right reasons. I want to know that someone else here is a pioneer and has an open heart that hasn’t turned bitter through the toil.” I began the drive that morning fully prepared to be disappointed. Like so many times over the course of my career, I’ve met enthusiastic small business owners in my region, who unfortunately were not prepared for the increasing commitment the years would demand of them. It can turn a person bitter, and for many reasons they choose a different path before profitable results can be realized.
The business of cultural arts and farming really aren’t all that different. Or at least, here in parts of East-Central Alabama, they directly parallel one another.
To our North and South, the Alabama Black Belt drives the farming and cultural arts industry. The soil is rich and so is the history. Smiths Station Alabama is a rural railroad town only recently turned city. I was born in middle Georgia, home to venetian-hued red clay and [in my opinion] the worlds best peaches. My family moved to Alabama when I was five. Smiths Station is my home town.
The railroad connects us to larger cities, just as it has for two centuries. In 2008, I opened the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art along those tracks. I chose to open an art gallery in a rural Alabama town. What was I thinking? Furthermore, I never intended to establish any business on this side of the river. Throughout my early years, I envisioned opening a business in an ideal locale, such as on a historic, tree-lined main street in a thriving arts district perhaps. Fate had other plans.
A less than picturesque main-street is County Road 430. Two roads parallel one another, with the tracks running right down the middle We have no old storefronts, no quintessential town square. For the past decades, town center has been comprised of a small grocery store, two banks, two ATM’s, three pharmacies, many churches, a post office and some of the best schools in Lee County. Lee County is a hilly region. To our South, the terrain flattens, the soil turns dark, and expansive treks of farmland stretch into the distance. To our North, the roads grow winding, the soil changes and the ecosystem is one of the most diverse in the nation. Through any amount of research, you will learn of the extensive conservation efforts across our state and you’ll also learn of the polluted water ways, soil depleted of nutrients, the parasites that threaten our lands and worse the near-irreconcilable footprint left by careless men.
The railroad connects Smiths Station to larger cities just as it once did. No passenger trains run through here anymore. However, the train still carries resources for industry. Not so long ago cotton was king. The rail line between Opelika, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia was dotted by cotton warehouses. A local historian visits my gallery/ studio often. He’s in his mid-eighties. As he speaks he draws upon his words with a distinguished old southern accent. I listen to him, and I’m transported back to a time long before my own. I hear the screen door clatter as he tells a tale of the day he was born. He was delivered by the local general store owner’s wife, Mrs. Jones. The old Jones Store, is one of precious few historic landmarks. It, once, sat along the tracks. I remember riding passed it as a child. There was a great pecan orchard behind the old place, near Mullins Farm. Now the [new] High School sits on the property. Just last year, our mayor [the second mayor, Smiths Station has ever had,] along with the City of Smiths Station moved the old [one room] general store into town. It’s currently undergoing preservation. It will become Smiths Station Alabama’s first historic museum, of sorts. In addition to the old Jones Store, there’s a beautiful old historic white-washed church, Mount Zion United Methodist. History records that it was the area’s first established congregation. Record shows that the original meeting house was really nothing more than a cabin in the 1800’s. The church cemetary is the oldest in town. The congregation moved the cabin down the railroad to it’s current home. A new building was constructed, completed with stained glass windows [1901.]
Through visits with our elder town historian, I’ve learned that the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art is the first establishment of its kind here in Smiths Station.
It wasn’t long after we opened the gallery that we realized that our purpose was a little different than our initial intent. I opened the gallery with co-founder, Michele West [my best friend, my fellow artist, my mother,] in a rural town that I knew I would never establish a business in. It was 2008. An older local gentleman, mistakenly open the gallery door, to make a surprising discovery. As so often happens, a person opens our door mistaking us for the gas station next door. Yes, the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art is adjacent to a gas station and locally owned get and go sort of establishment, complete with burger type diner near the rear of the store. So vividly, I recall the elder gentleman’s remark. He wore a Veteran’s cap. He stood one foot in and one foot out. “So you mean to tell me, you’re opening an ART GALLERY in Smiths Station? Gas just hit $5 a gallon!,” pointing with his time-weathered hand towards the gas station marquee as he remarked. I remember feeling unmoved by his response. I responded with certainty, “Yes Sir, we are.”
Shortly after opening the gallery, we began to meet people who influenced our life’s course. Soon we realized that it wasn’t art acquisitions that this community needed. They needed better means for living a life. I’m not referring to the monetary needs of a people during that time of national economic crisis. I’m referring to the Point of Discover that awakens a person to their own capability.
Immediately, Michele and I began developing an Art Program for Continued Fine Art Education. We moved our easels around and made space in our small studio for a table and a couple of chairs. With one student is how we began. Our first student was a lady who visited the gallery, and in our first conversation she expressed her love for art, her interest and her desire to improve her own creative ability. Over our classes together, I would learn that she is care-giver to her son who has special needs. One student led to another, then two became three. Their stories are all more alike than they are different. Our story seems a slow start at first. But I like to think of our life as being much like the process of the farm. First you must establish good soil. Then, you’ll have years of longevity to nourish continued growth.
I didn’t know then that we would continue down this path, or let alone that ten years later a local historian would step through my gallery door, informing me that we are doing a form of work here that has never been recorded here before.
The art program that we developed was a direct reflection of our own experiences, study and research. The program needed a name, and The Sarah West Artistic Mentoring Program was born. It’s been ten years since we welcomed our first student. While the program has grown to foster over 80 different classes and courses for art students of every age, the purpose has remained the same. Through art’s process we learn how alike we truly are, and we learn how capable we are. Hundreds of students and area residents have studied through studio classes at the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art. People travel from miles around to be a part of this rural arts community based at 2750 Lee Rd 430.
Through collaboration with the mayor and City of Smiths Station, the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art serves as Cultural Arts Partners with City. For the first time in Smiths Station’s history, City Hall has two Cultural Art Exhibition Galleries, providing citizens with daily accessible exposure to the arts.
As part of our continued Cultural Arts Enrichment Outreach, the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art brings national and international known artists, musicians and writers to the community for Listening Room, Lecture Events. Mount Zion United Methodist Church serves as our historic landmark listening room partner.
Since 2013, and with over 200 works printed, the Citizen of East Alabama [Alabama’s largest weekly distributed newspaper] has provided us with a published voice. Through a weekly column, I advocate for the arts, preservation, conservation and sustainability.
And in 2016, CTV Beam Productions became a collaborative press partner of the Sarah West Gallery Fine Art, providing opportunities for televised documentive programming centered around the cultural arts and sustainability involvements of your truly. See Art Walks on CTV of East Alabama..also available on YouTube. New works are in development.
This brings me back to my morning drive down familiar Alabama back roads. I’ve grown quite accustom to not getting my hopes up. I was going to meet a local farmer, well aware of potential disappointment.
I turned off of a County Road onto a gravel drive. I still love the sound of gravel and dirt as it crunches beneath the car tires. Mounds of red clay rolled for as far as I could see. Pines sprung up in the nearing distance, and the sound of trickling streams echoed between high tunnels. Before our tour, I presented a few burning questions. As one looks around, it’s apparent that this work is not easy. The terrain is less than ideal and most would turn away before a second thought could be given to this lands lack of potential. Many would call it a lost cause. I had to ask the question(s), “Why are you farming here..what keeps you here, when there are ideal locales, better soil and a smarter market 40 miles north, south, east and west of us?”
The farmer responded, “Because it’s hard. And because no one is doing this here.”
I’d say I couldn’t believe it but then again, his words reflect exactly what I’ve done in my line of work. We’re forging paths where there aren’t any. Not because it’s easy but because it is hard.
If not us, who? If not now, when?
In East-Central Alabama, many schools lack funding to provided adequate programs for continued intellectual development through the arts. Art programs are few, and where they are offered it is often limited. The Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art sees this need, and through working with our local educators and councilors, we are striving to facilitate needs by providing Continued Fine Art Education Programs through Extended Day held at local area schools. In 2018, the Sarah West Artistic Mentoring Program debuted its Extended Day |After School| Art Class program at two Smiths Station Elementary Schools, and through Sponsorship by the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art, Scholarships for Continued Fine Art Education are distributed through our participating school partners. This Scholarship Program provides local educators and councilors with opportunities to award scholarships to children in our community who exhibit need of artistic mentorship and further education. This directly addresses the underprivileged within our community, who otherwise may not experience the ways that art influences life for the better. To continue funding for the Sarah West Artistic Mentoring Scholarship, a Seed Fund Purchase Gift Program was established. Through the Seed Fund, cultural arts advocates and friends of the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art, can purchase scholarships that we distribute to those in need.
In the fall of 2017, I took notice as we welcomed our first scholarship recipients into our studio classes. Enrolled students of privilege were sat alongside new art students recently awarded scholarships. I observed how the students interacted with one another. In the art studio, they are all equal. At school they may have differences, but here they thrive as one community of kindred spirits, reminded of how alike they truly. I was aware of this new program would inform my work and influence my life. I realize that through our work with schools, we aren’t just working to reconcile and restore core community values, or strengthen human capability and skill such as problem-solving, hand-eye coordination, increased attention attention span and focus, along with mindfulness through the practice of meditation. We are, in fact, changing the cultural geography of our community. We leveling the playing field to insure that both those of privilege and those who live well beneath the poverty line know their worth, capability and dreams are not defined by their circumstances but rather how they choose to use and further cultivate the capability that we all possess individually and equally.
We are stewards of the earth just as much as we are stewards of the people whom we encounter. This year, we found place for another program. A docent program with the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art fulfills the need of community for art students and appreciators. Weekly our docents greet gallery visitors, answer questions and share first hand accounts of how art has positively influenced their lives through the good times and the sad. This program much like our work with the city and the schools, is one held close to our hearts. It’s programs like these that we, for so long, cataloged as the “someday” projects. Someday was the seemingly future far-off day that we will break ground and build our Art Centre. Conceptualized in 2011, we began planning for the day that we would build the Sarah West Centre of Cultural Arts. And in that planning, we dreamed of the many programs that we would foster under a larger roof, and on more expansive grounds. In a lighting moment, I realized that “someday” is today. It’s everyday. It is now. We already are a Center for Cultural Arts. We are destination not only for our home community but for our state and region. And while our establishment is still located at the address that started it all, we already are capable of more than we could dreamed of, and we are going to break ground and build the Sarah West Centre of Cultural Arts.Our projected date for expanded development is 2020.
We continue to further our Grass Root Initiatives for Cultural Arts, Historic Preservation & Nature Conservancy through collaborative efforts with fellow advocates, civic leaders, educators, etc.
Like, the farmer, we have chosen our Place and Purpose not because it is easy but because it is hard. And because we believe in the power of the present, because it is we who are here now-
Image(s) | Sarah West
The Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art
Neal Pope’s Farm
To Learn More Follow Sarah West via facebook, twitter, instagram @SarahWestArtist
Read Sarah West via the Citizen of East Alabama
Watch Sarah West via CTV BEAM ch.7/207 also on YouTube- Art Walks with Sarah West