“To make the world a better place, ask yourself, what can I do to help.” — Francis Allen
Those words are emblazoned on a painted piece of plywood hanging high on the wall in Roots Up Gallery and are attributed to Francis Allen, co-founder of the gallery with wife Leslie Lovell. The painting is a portrait of Allen by Savannah's Panhandle Slim in the artist's signature style and it may as well be the motto for the gallery itself.
Allen passed away at the same time the gallery relocated to its present address in the design district, but his legacy is still very much alive in the current iteration of Roots Up, now celebrating its fifth year as the premiere space for southern folk, “outsider,” and self-taught visionary artists.
“I've been really blessed by the support I've had from this town,” says Lovell. “And Francis. He was a visionary, also.”
Finding a good fit
When Roots Up opened at its original location on Liberty Street, Allen and Lovell had basically stumbled into it. They had recently sold their house in Charlotte, N.C., and were en route to Mexico to start a new chapter of their lives when they made a stopover in Savannah for what was supposed to be only a few months. But through a series of fortuitous events, they found themselves drawn, as so many are, to the unclassifiable charm of Savannah.
“Everything we were looking for was here, as it turned out,” says Lovell. “We were looking for colonial cities and artistic communities and things like that; so everything fit the bill here.”
Though neither Allen or Lovell had a background in running a gallery, they both had an abiding love for so-called “outsider” and otherwise self-taught artists like Howard Finster. As many in this city know, Allen was involved in wide variety of aspects of the artistic community, as was Lovell, so opening a space that sold art simply made sense.
“Neither one of us had a background in any of this,” says Lovell. “But you can have your vision and make it happen.”
The goal with Roots Up has always been to mix regional folk art with other local artists, mostly self-taught, who might not otherwise be categorized as “folk,” but have a similar creative spirit. Their ethos is the idea of “soulful art borne from within.”
“Everybody has to have a soulfulness in their work,” says Lovell. “You don't need a dictionary to come in and talk about it. And it's more reasonably priced.”
The guiding principle is that the art is meant to be eminently approachable. And by every count, they seem to have succeeded at that. So for the fifth anniversary, Roots Up is presenting the work of Helen Durant, a local artist and friend of Lovell's whose work speaks to the heart of what the gallery is all about.
Lovell describes Durant's work as delivering “such depth and emotion,” which is what Lovell seeks out in all the gallery's artists. That's why you'll find local artists like Lisa Ocampo and Lisa D. Watson alongside more “rural” and self-taught visionary artists like Howard Finster, Mr. Imagination and Ab the Flagman.
Roots Up has been a part of the rise in popularity of southern folk art in the region and stands as an example of the possibilities when a couple of visionaries put their minds together to promote other visionaries.
“That was part of the goal, to share about these artists,” says Lovell. “This is their legacy and you want to try to help move it along and keep it preserved. And people that are collectors know about it, but they also find out about other local artists. They come to our website for folk art and then they've bought local artists, so it's nice to be able to blend those two together.”
The next five years
Regardless of the ups and downs that have accompanied the five-year lifespan of Roots Up, Lovell is resolute in her vision for the future, but she also notes that she can't do it all alone.
Savannah remains on the tipping point of being an arts destination, but hasn't quite tipped. Reaching that point can't just be left to the artists and gallery owners. Wider civic support is needed to promote Savannah's character and artistic nature, which is something Lovell is hopeful for.
“I'm just so thankful that I'm still here and I'm able to do what I want to be able to do,” says Lovell. “It's been a hard, fast five years.
“Some people might look at [the gallery] and think, 'What is this?' I mean it's very eclectic, but it has this flow that works together very well I think. And seemingly everyone thinks so as well ... I always worry, do I have too much in here or is it overwhelming? But people don't seem to have a problem with it.
"I want to keep the balance. I want to keep equal focus on local artists. A lot of them haven't gone to school for it. But they have their need to create, their style, their voice and you want to get it out there.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.