6 Local Artists You Should Know
Get to know a few homegrown assets who add their gifts to the arts scene here and throughout the country.
Photo by Jeffrey Peixoto
LIFE THROUGH A LENS
Growing up in Mobile as a songwriter’s daughter, documentarian Margaret Brown never heard the words, “You can’t.” Hoping she might one day follow in his footsteps, her father, Milton Brown, bestowed various musical instruments upon her throughout her childhood. As she explored and discovered her own tastes, both of her parents always supported any creative endeavors.
“When I got into film school, my dad was probably 30 times as excited as I was. He was just pumped. I feel as if I had an unfair advantage: Whatever I wanted to do, it was supported,” Brown shares.
Her father’s pride was not misplaced. Over the last decade, Brown has directed and released three major documentaries, including two focusing directly on the Mobile community. Her award-winning “The Order of Myths,” released in 2008, paints a controversial picture of racial relations in the local Mardi Gras culture and boasts a 100 percent rating on the film review website, Rotten Tomatoes. The accolades on her most recent film, “The Great Invisible,” continue to roll in. The 2014 film about the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival and was nominated for a 2015 Emmy Award.
For Brown, however, the crowning achievement of “The Great Invisible” is not the awards, but how deeply it has affected viewers. “On the Eastern Seaboard and in some places in California, there’s talk about opening coastal sites for drilling. People have reached out to me and asked, ‘Can we show your film in our town?’ They wanted a presentation of the other side to this issue besides the oil company saying, ‘There’s going to be all this money.’”
While Brown hesitates to call her documentary a “learning tool,” she acknowledges that the artistic medium can relay the impact of this tragedy on workers and families on the coast. “In the area of the spill, the film was cathartic for people. I had a screening in the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, and people were coming out crying.”
Brown herself was not excluded from intense emotions about the spill. “My father sent me some photos of our family’s house surrounded by the orange boom the fire department had put up to keep the oil from reaching the shore. He was so upset. I was angry. When this happened, there was really no choice,” Brown recalls of the first moments she decided to pursue this project.
Many people may not see the artistry in documentaries; to Brown, that’s the most important part. “They get branded as, ‘Take your medicine, watch a documentary!’ I appreciate when my work is thought of as cinematic, not just prescriptive, but I am grateful that it can sometimes act that way.”
Though she resides in Los Angeles, Brown still looks fondly on the city that fostered her creative side. “Whenever I’m here, I get really inspired. I’m always creatively fed in Mobile.”
> “The Order of Myths,” a Sundance Film Festival award nominee, and “The Great Invisible,” are now available on Netflix Instant Play.
RECREATIONAL POP ARTIST
The completely whitewashed Fairhope home of Emily Barnes certainly doesn’t lack for color. Lively reds, soothing blues, soft greens and bright yellows dot the walls throughout her home. “Vibrant colors and dynamic motion,” is how she describes the almost effervescent motifs of her paintings.
A graduate of Auburn University Montgomery with a degree in Fine Arts, Barnes discovered the ultimate muse for her work during her final school project. “I’m inspired by water: the ocean, a pool, the Gulf,” she says. “I study it a bit – nothing scientific – but I’ll watch how light changes through the water.”
Categorizing her paintings can be difficult, as they seem like entities unto themselves. “I had a painting professor in college who looked at my work and said if he could put a title to it, it would be ‘recreational pop art,’” Barnes shares. And the retro title with a twist certainly seems to fit.
Barnes may spend two to three months on a single painting. The details that come through on the canvas reveal reflections of sunlight on swimming bodies in the water, varied angles and refractions, and shades of blue and green. The images are lifelike yet surreal. They feel familiar while somehow fantastical.
“The monochromatic pieces are the most fun,” Barnes explains, referencing her many paintings with varying shades of one focal color. “I literally use about three tubes of paint. I’ll spend hours just mixing up paint and end up with this huge palette with a gradient of colors.”
Each painting originates from a photograph, snapped by her or a family member. “I can remember very specifically the day each picture was taken and how I felt,” she says. “Even in the wintertime, these pictures always make me feel warm.” When asked if that makes her entire home a walk-through photo album, she chuckles and agrees. “I guess it does.”
Barnes hopes to open a contemporary gallery someday. “I’ve been told my work looks like Miami. In places like Miami, Tampa and St. Petersburg, people take more risks. A lot of graffiti, abstract art – just a little more urban.” Barnes smiles. “I’m trying to find this niche of how to keep my style and also appeal to Fairhope.”
While she works on her goals for the future, Barnes’ more immediate goal is to communicate through her art. “I want my viewers to gain a similar sense of uplifting power that I derive from the environments I paint. I get so much energy from being underwater, being outside, looking at the water. I want people to feel happy and stimulated,” Barnes says breathlessly.
And sitting in a bright yellow T-shirt and stylish nautical-looking shoes, she certainly looks like someone just itching to get out in the sun and water.
> Feel the warmth of summer all year long with Barnes’ aquatic paintings. To browse and buy, visit ebpaint.com.
B.B. Palmer and Kudzu
Music infiltrated Bernard Breitung’s life from the very start. With his mother playing James Taylor on the radio and his father’s interest in R & B and soul, the artist who now goes by “B.B. Palmer” boasts knowledge of and exposure to just about every genre. Of course, appreciating music naturally led to creating it. “My old man, he picked and sang a bit, so he taught me the Holy Trinity of chords: G, C and D. He said, ‘If you learn these, you can pretty much write any song you wanna,’ and it’s stayed true to this day,” Palmer reminisces.
His first group, formed while in high school at McGill-Toolen, toured around the Bay area. A few years down the road, Palmer migrated to Lee County and joined a blues group called the Chronic Blues. Now, he’s taking on his own project, B.B. Palmer and Kudzu, which he describes as “traditional country, honky-tonk music.”
Palmer shares, “We want to explore all areas of music in the cosmos, everything under the sun.”
B.B. Palmer and Kudzu sometimes refer to their musical stylings as “cosmic country,” a genre that blurs the lines between various styles of music such as bluegrass, folk, soul and rock. For Palmer, it’s also about addressing controversial issues and challenging the status quo of current music culture. “What we’re doing is controversial, but it’s true to what we believe in and stand for. Subjects like pro-legalization, gay marriage, reaching a universal consciousness,” Palmer explains. “As a music culture, we’re on the cusp of a total change in popular music.”
In mid-July, the Lee County-based group recorded their first seven-track EP (or “extended play”) entitled “Belle Fontaine,” after the area where Palmer lived out his childhood. “All of the songs I’ve written are somewhat based on where I grew up. I feel like those were the best days of my life. Being raised on the water, it’s a majestic place. There’s something about it that’s very spiritual.”
Another area for songwriting inspiration is his personal journey with addiction and recovery. Palmer has been clean of painkillers for three years. The song “Mississippi Grin,” included on the upcoming EP, deals with issues of “forgiveness and leaving that life behind,” which, to Palmer, is one of his biggest accomplishments.
“I’m not proud of a lot of things I’ve done, but this is one I am proud of, probably more than my music. It’s the struggle of going to the edge and looking over and almost going there. Everything is real clear right now – [addiction and drugs] drains your creativity as an artist.”
As they plan their “Belle Fontaine” tour, B.B. Palmer and Kudzu plan to make their way down to Mobile, though no dates are confirmed yet. They hope their hometown supporters will appreciate and enjoy the different perspective they offer.
“We’re trying to change the landscape of country music,” Palmer concludes. “If you like mainstream country, more power to you. I just think the smaller guys, who are really honest in their writing, deserve more attention and more radio time. I believe that there’s a revolution in music coming in the next five to 10 years.” And if B.B. Palmer and Kudzu have it their way, they will be along for the entire ride.
> Take on the cosmic experience yourself. “Belle Fontaine” will be available for purchase on iTunes this month.
Raley Zofko’s road to the Rockettes included training at Cammie Maumenee School of Dance in Gulf Shores, Green Acres School of Dance and Dare 2 Dance in Robertsdale, and Sheffield’s School of the Dance in Mobile. She went on to perform as part of the University of South Alabama Dance Team, the Prowlers, for four years before taking Radio City Music Hall by storm. Photo by Todd Douglas
KICKIN' IT AT RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL
Raley Zofko remembers the exact moment she decided that she would be one of the famed high-kicking Radio City Music Hall Rockette dancers. “When I was 14, I signed up for this weeklong summer intensive at the University of Alabama. I learned all about the Rockettes and their history, and we learned their actual choreography,” she recalls. “I just fell in love with them. I became obsessed.”
Four years later, and with 15 years of dance instruction from a plethora of Mobile-area institutions (see above), Zofko had reached the minimum age to audition. The 18-year-old survived the first day of training in New York and received a callback for the next day. “You learn a jazz combination, then a tap combination. They make cuts throughout the whole day. I got cut in the first round of callbacks,” she shares. It would take another year and another rigorous audition before Zofko got the nod. She’d made it through the final round and could officially call herself a Rockette.
Now, having just completed her eighth season, she’s gearing up for the fall while starting to look to the future. “I may stay for year 10 next year. I’m interested in stepping away from it and doing something else, but I’ve only ever done dance,” Zofko admits. Throughout her years with the Rockettes, she has taken education classes with her eye on possibly becoming a schoolteacher. Right now, however, she’s keeping her options open. “Heading in a different direction will probably end up happening, but what direction, I’m just not sure right now.”
After devoting decades to her dance career, she spends her off-seasons in Mobile instructing a variety of Broadway workshops and jazz classes at Mobile Ballet and Gulf Coast Dance Alliance.
“With teaching, you’re sharing your passion for performance,” Zofko starts. “Performing is all I ever cared about. As I’ve gotten older, I’m less partial to the performance side of it and more into teaching. I recognize now how important it is to educate the younger generation.”
Through her formative years performing with various local studios to the nearly nine years she’s spent traveling with the Rockettes, Zofko appreciates the depth and strength of her training in Mobile.“Transitioning from studio to studio forces you out of your comfort zone, and helps you learn to make friends and adapt. I am an only-child, so I’m extremely grateful for that.
“But, I would love to see more dancing, obviously, and more performances and shows in Mobile,” Zofko says excitedly. “So many cities have traveling Broadway shows that set up for a few weeks at a time and perform,” she explains. “Theater isn’t something you should have to fly to New York to see. It should definitely be accessible in a great city like Mobile.”
ART FROM THE EARTH
Most women have a handful of statement pieces of jewelry in their fashion arsenals. Carefully selected, sparingly worn and boldly beautiful, these items elevate outfits beyond the normal chic of everyday attire. And for this jewelry designer, creating those one-of-a-kind, attention-grabbing pieces is the ultimate thrill and the inspiration behind her jewelry company, Soeur b.
“I enjoy the experimentation and creativity with the jewelry designs, which is the most important part,” Taylor Thrasher, Soeur b.’s founder and designer, says. She currently splits her time between Mobile and Atlanta, where she also works as a stylist for Ballard Designs.
The jewelry line – featured in half a dozen upscale boutiques including Lucca in Orange Beach and Sarah B. Atchison in Mobile – draws inspiration from nature, specifically, animals. Thrasher incorporates antlers, boar tusks, shark teeth and stones such as turquoise and tourmaline, cleverly balancing those rustic elements with glitzy additions. “There’s just something about these combinations that evokes a sense of rugged elegance without looking overdone.”
Thrasher hasn’t trained formally in design. She learned her style and trade through trial and error. Evidently, that experimentation has paid off, as evidenced by the fact that her pieces have turned heads since before the line’s official inception. “I just had an idea and turned it into jewelry. At first, my mom and I were the only ones wearing it, and we had people coming up and asking who and what we were wearing. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe this could be something,’” Thrasher shares.
In her industrial-style workshop, she works on a piece. Quietly and meticulously stringing beads onto a thin strand of plastic string, Thrasher hardly removes her eyes from the project at hand. Focus seems to be key in handling a mixture of large and miniscule items that will, eventually, become beautiful wearable art.
In an age when using cheap, imitation materials seems to reign supreme, Thrasher’s determination to stay true to nature stands out. “I like working with the real thing. Who wants a fake boar tusk? It’s a selling point to be able to say the materials are authentic. Customers always comment, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s real?’
“That seems even more important to people in the South,” Thrasher continues with a smile. “I’ve just ‘fancied up’ deer antlers a bit by adding diamonds or gold fill.”
The mix of high and low is what makes the Soeur b. line successful. The interplay can dress an outfit up or down, whatever the wearer wants. This one accessory “can change your look completely.”
Photo by Todd Douglas
SPEAKING OUT WITH STYLE
In 2013, when Destani Hoffman moved back to Mobile after graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), she assumed she’d eventually end up perfecting her art in New York. “I moved back down here for my fiancé,” she says. “I said that after a few months, I’d go on to New York. But everything in Mobile seemed to happen so fast. I found a thriving art community here.”
Since then, Hoffman has indeed fully immersed herself into the local art culture with no intention to leave. “Art school students flock to the same cities after they graduate. They’re all on their knees begging for jobs, fighting against one another – there’s no community. Here, I feel I’m part of a movement.” Hoffman speaks with power behind her words, and her eyes alight with passion.
Many Mobilians may recognize Hoffman’s name from last year’s Mobile Fashion Week, where she unveiled a collection of garments covered with plastic eyes personifying the pressure of constantly being judged. That distinctive aesthetic was years in the making. She started at Parsons School of Design (before transferring to SCAD), knowing she wanted to create art but not sure through which medium.
“At Parsons, I learned everything from 3-D sculpture to wire sculpture, all kinds of things I never would have thought I’d do. By the time I got to SCAD, I was into 3-D art, and I always made clothing,” she explains. Now, that tendency has evolved into her fashion design business, DH Designs, which focuses on making clothes with that “avant-garde, sculpture-like effect.”
Another part of Hoffman’s fashion raison-d’etre? Tackling taboos. “I developed my brand so that I get inspired by things that society says you’re not supposed to talk about, and I take that and make a collection and throw it in your face. It’s what I do,” she says with a playful grin.
Her new collection, on display during Mobile Fashion Week from September 24 to 26, is also expected to generate some buzz. Hoffman took societal standards of beauty and modesty and is pushing those boundaries. “My views are that the body is a beautiful thing, so why not promote it? The collection features different parts of the body that people don’t necessarily see as beautiful: the hip bone, for instance, or the upper ribcage.”
Also enamored of the elaborate garb worn by religious figures, Hoffman set to work creating her new line. Elements such as box pleats and elegant draping create the statuesque silhouette she so admires. “I’ve always been fascinated by popes and how they drape the fabric and make these shapes and all the handiwork involved in that,” she explains.
Hoffman sees Mobile supporting area arts and realizes how incredible that actually is. “In some places, people may say, ‘We won’t promote the art scene, just get them out of our hair.’ In Mobile, specifically, my experience has been the exact opposite. There are so many local businesses saying, ‘Yes, artists! Come paint my windows, come paint my body, come walk around Art Walk.’”
To her, Mobile has become a fashion hotspot. “I cannot leave this town right now – it’s happening, and I’m so excited."
> Her new collection will be on display during Mobile Fashion Week from September 24 to 26.