Interview: Elaine Akin, Guest Editor, No.81 – Art of the South

Picture of Elaine Akin

Guest Editor Elaine Akin (photo credit: Heather Canterbury)

Elaine Slayton Akin is currently working at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. She is the guest editor of Number:81 – Art of the South. A former member of the Board for Number: Inc., Elaine received a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Memphis and has continually worked in the arts pretty much everywhere Number: Inc. magazine covers (Memphis, Little Rock, AR, and now Nashville). I met up with her recently after an East Side Storytellin’ literary/music event that I hosted that she and her husband Tim attended, and we discussed our mutual love of Number: and how the art of the South has pleasantly affected our worlds and how we see everything.

Can you give me a short bio as if you were making a new website for your life right now?

My “right now” is all about being new in Nashville, so I’d say I’m an Arkansas transplant navigating my way through Music City and hoping to take in as many art, culture, and people experiences as possible in the process.  It’s ironic—I never thought that moving away would put me more in touch with my roots.  I just started a new position at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and am now constantly surrounded by…wait for it…country music; catching bits and pieces of early ‘90s songs by George Strait, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, or Trisha Yearwood as I walk through the building reminds me of my very Southern, very rural childhood.  Although I miss Little Rock for a myriad of reasons, I couldn’t be more excited about this adventure and opportunity to explore a totally new slice of the South.

Maybe tell us a little more about yourself beyond the bio too: interests, goals, and fun things you haven’t done or accomplished yet but want to do so going forward, in art and life in general.

I’m not really sure how to tackle this question other than in short, choppy statements.  I love to travel; my husband Tim and I went to Paris and Rome last year, and the art…oooh, the ART.  I had a very unusual fascination with the life of Marie-Antoinette (short explanation:  studied portraits of her in grad school), so Versailles, the Conciergerie, and the St. Denis Cathedral kind of blew my mind for that reason.  I love meeting new people, making new friends, and learning about their histories.  I have been thinking about starting a blog, but I can’t land on a topic.  And I want to visit many more art museums; being in Nashville, I’m so much closer to the North- and Southeast—so, like, the High Museum of Art, The Toledo Museum of Art, and on and on.

How did you first develop an interest, appreciation, and love in art and how has that progressed in your career and over the years into adulthood beyond school?

Want to hear something funny?  As a freshman at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas, I registered as pre-pharmacy to follow in my dad’s footsteps.  In my first week, I found out that would require calculus and switched immediately to English!  In hindsight, I’m so glad it was English; it’s taken me really far both personally and professionally.   Later, I chose a minor in art because I used to draw with graphite on paper so much growing up (mostly clothes!  I fancied myself a fashion designer).  My first course credit was Art History 101 with Dr. Robert Torchia, and it changed my life.  It was the mostly challenging class I’d ever had, and I couldn’t get enough of the buzz of the slide projector.  Seriously…I’m such a nerd.  I ended up with a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Memphis and haven’t stopped writing about art ever since.  Even when it’s not my full-time gig, it’s always in the background.

What does the line “The art of the South” make you think of, envision, and talk about with others? Basically, what does that phrase mean to you, personally?

An artistic surface doesn’t necessarily have to don a cotton field or a hunting dog to be considered “art of the South,” although those things certainly don’t hurt!  Just ask Garden and Gun magazine.  If you’re from the South and you make art, your creation reflects the influence of the South whether you like it or not.   Art of the South almost always shares a common thread of quiet rebellion, and I love its wild spirit!  If it’s in classic style (say, an oil on canvas depicting a country church), then it’s just as likely in rebellion of the loss of cultural heritage as an unconventional style (say, a provocative three-dimensional sculpture representing human trafficking) is in rebellion of stereotypes.

Can you talk a little about your own experiences in the Nashville, Memphis, and Little Rock scene, similarities and differences?

I’ve been in Nashville for all of two minutes, so my understanding of its arts scene is pretty superficial at this point.  But I can definitely talk about Little Rock and Memphis.  I experienced the two cities through completely different perspectives:  Memphis as a student and Little Rock as a post-grad working girl.  Immersed in the art department of the University of Memphis, I saw the most inspired guys and gals making the most improvisational artworks from whatever objects were lying around combined with high-quality, traditional materials —a very raw sort of creative process.  I’d see these works in galleries around town, elevated to the same level as “professional” artists.  The whole art department would turn out for exhibition openings.  Very cool academic culture.  I experienced Little Rock from the complete other side, visiting galleries and working in the business of the arts.  I saw up-and-coming artists work their way around the gallery circuit of Little Rock until they grew in popularity and were picked up by the most prestigious galleries in town, as well as grade-school kids gain confidence in the arts through local nonprofit programs and events.  While each city has its own artistic culture and its own way of promoting its artists—whether grass roots or more hierarchical, one thing’s for sure—each city’s arts scene is completely supported by their respective philanthropic communities.

Can you give some good examples of how art has helped build those communities or attract positive change for those cities that might not have happened without the help of art?

In Little Rock, for example, the Creative Corridor is in the process of revolutionizing downtown.  Once a center for commerce and social activity, Main Street lost its spark some years ago, but now has a very promising future.  I actually covered the front end of the project in Number:  69 in an interview with artist V.L. Cox.  Funded by an Our Town Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the project is intended to renovate four conjoined buildings along Main Street and open affordable working space for a variety of artists—visual, dance, drama, and musical.  Best of all, it’s intended to boost the economy.  Cox said it best:  “Artists will stabilize a neighborhood very quickly.  Artists are urban pioneers—the first to go in and the first to move to other urban territories.”  Although it was founded after I left, I hear Crosstown Arts is doing similar things in Memphis—revitalizing a once rundown cornerstone of downtown and stimulating the artistic economy and community.

You just mentioned how art affects the South, but how do you feel the South permeates and helps influence the arts?

The South has such a rich, eclectic heritage of art, music, food, and culture that I’m so proud to be a part of as an Arkansas native, but it wasn’t always that way.  Its heritage runs so deep that it’s rather inescapable!  I’ll never forget going to Washington, D.C. for the first time as a junior in high school for a young leaders conference with over a thousand other students from across the country.  I was one of three from Arkansas.  For an entire week, I had random kids seeking me out and asking me to talk—seriously, just to talk—so they could hear my Southern accent.  I felt like some sort of exotic bird on exhibit.  Looking back on that now, I think instead of how special and unique I was perceived to be, which is a perfect example of how I hope outsiders perceive the South’s influence as a whole.

All that to say, I see Southern heritage as similar to time—it keeps moving and morphing and permeating no matter how many times or ways artists try to capture its spirit.  As a result, artists operate somewhat as historians, providing windows to our shared past—good or bad, from the appreciation of sweet iced tea to the civil rights movement—as well as a lighted path to our future.

What are some short-term and/or long-term challenges that you think should be addressed for how people write about, cover, and promote the art of the South- locally, regionally, and beyond? (How could groups like Number and other artists do better, in your opinion? What are some ideas, no matter how crazy they sound, do you think people should try to really spark more interest and vitality into the arts?)

More than anything, I think it’s important for writers to let the art object, performance, music, etc. speak for itself and be careful with the conclusions we draw—myself included.  It’s easy to go into an exhibition opening with our minds made up based on the marketing postcard or works we’ve previously seen by the same artist, and I think that’s unfair.  Let’s let the questions stem from our first-hand experience with the art in question and form our opinions in the moment.

Chuck Beard is a writer and owner of Nashville’s only all local bookstore East Side Story, Chuck is also a former editor of Number.