Roots Up Gallery is nearing its fifth year anniversary and it's already grown into something of a cultural institution in Savannah.
Roots Up has become the standard bearer for southern folk art and regional artists who take the road less traveled. The artists featured at Roots Up are driven not by a crass commercial expectation of ivory gallery fame and fortune, but by a deeper drive to satiate their compulsive creative urges.
The gallery's newest featured artist, German born emigre Herbert Albin, fits the mold of other Roots Up artists in that he doesn't fit any mold at all.
Born in 1919, Albin's family fled East Germany when he was young. As an adult, Albin immigrated to the United States with his wife Stella and they lived variously in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina. Both Albin and his wife were trained musicians and fine artists. Albin made his living as a concert violinist and was Concertmaster of the Charleston and Augusta Symphony Orchestras before retiring.
Albin passed in 2006, but he spent over two decades creating exquisite artworks he called wood mosaics using exotic tonewood, the same type of wood used to make stringed instruments. These incredibly intricate artworks were done through a technique called “marquetry” which involves carving out recesses in the wood surface and then filling in the void with inlays of other wood, stone, bone, ivory, or other materials. The results can be staggeringly beautiful.
Roots Up recently acquired the remaining lifetime collection of Albin's pictorial wood mosaics and will be featuring them beginning Feb. 28. Gallery founder and owner Leslie Lovell came across the works at a recent auction and originally hadn't intended on acquiring them, but something about Albin's work spoke to her.
“It was a huge lot,” Lovell said. “I mean there was over eighty pieces and I got all of them. It's what's left of his life's collection. I wasn't planning on it. I looked at a little bit of it and I thought, no. But I kept looking at it and the workmanship is just overwhelming... I just started appreciating it. And this other guy and I were bidding. We had a bidding war going on and I was like, 'Will you just let it go?'”
Eventually Lovell was successful and her triumph is Savannah's boon. And as it happens, another Roots Up artist, watercolorist Harriet Speer remembers Albin from his days as Concertmaster with the Augusta Symphony.
“When I was younger, I remember hearing he and his family had escaped East Germany, which always stood out in my mind,” Speer said. “Later, when I became a designer, I had purchased pieces of his for my clients. His work was exquisite.”
Speer also describes a distant visual memory of Albin from the early or mid-1960s at one of the rehearsals for the Augusta Symphony in the Old Medical College building designed by Charles Cluskey.
“He's wearing a fine woolen turtleneck,” describes Speer. “Probably flannel pants and fine, soft leather slip-on shoes, and he's keeping time tapping his foot. Because his shoes had such pliable leather, I could tell that he was bending his toes to keep time, not a simple lifting of the whole shoe. Bizarre, distant memories.”
The opening reception for Albin's body of work will be on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 5:30pm.