The Art Of RebuildingAlabama artists band together to aid recovery efforts

Friends in disaster: Artists and friends John Lytle Wilson (left) and Wes Frazer (right) are organizing a benefit gallery exhibit at ACME Gallery on May 26. Photo by Sam George.

As we approach the one-month anniversary of the devastating storms of April 27, many victims are still struggling to recover from the damage done to their personal property and emotional well-being. It seems but a moment since our placid sense of security got ripped away, leaving us vulnerable and frightened. Piles of debris still sit on curbs waiting for pick-up, and some displaced residents live in tents while they wait for some kind of housing alternative. It is clear that the journey to recovery is going to be something that takes years, not months.At the same time, national attention is beginning to slip away from us. Since we were hit, a number of other major disasters have struck other towns. The Mississippi River has flooded, last Wednesday tornadoes tore paths across Oklahoma and two other states and last Sunday a massive twister split the town of Joplin, Mo. in half, killing at least 123 people and becoming the deadliest tornado on record. As with any disaster, we can only hope to hold the attention spans of a fickle national audience for so long.

In the long term, the burden on continuing to raise recovery funds for our damaged region will fall to…our damaged region. We need to, each of us within our own communities, find ways to bring people to the giving trough, and to do so in a way that allows people to have fun and step out from the oppressive atmosphere of a disaster zone, if only for a moment.

Which brings me to local artists John Lytle Wilson and Wes Frazer. The two friends and longtime contributors to the Birmingham art community began brain-storming ways to bring local artists together in a way that could benefit storm relief. Wilson, whose work often involves seamlessly painting brightly colored robots and monkeys into the backgrounds of existing paintings, came up with the idea while talking with his wife about how they could help with tornado relief.

“[We] were talking after the storm about how one of the local galleries should put on a benefit,” Wilson says. “We decided that it was something that I could actually try to make happen. Wes is one of my good friends, so I pitched it to him for the next ACME show and he immediately said yes. So it was very much conceived as a way to help those hurt by the storms, and particularly as a way for artists to help. I know many great artists in Birmingham. So many of us are willing to give, but aren’t in a position to just write a check. We’ve had a such a tremendous response from artists. I’ve been overwhelmed by their generosity.”

Frazer only recently started over seeing shows at the newly formed ACME gallery next to Magic City Motor Scooters. Their first show took place only five days before the tornadoes hit. Though he had a second show already in the works, when Lytle approached him about hosting the relief show he shelved it immediately.

“I don’t know why I never thought of it,” admits Frazer. “I already had the other show planned. It was going to be a motorcycle art show from various artists along with photographers and motorcycle builders all over the country. Then [Wilson] said we should do a tornado show, and I was like, ‘good idea.’ So I got in touch with all my people and told them to hold onto their work. We’re going to do this because it needs to be done first. Then we came up with a letter [and] sent it to all of my friends who are artists and people outside of Birmingham whose art I like and pretty much all of them said yeah. We have art from all over the country.”

A wall full of funds: Some of the art ACME Gallery is preparing for Thursday’s benefit opening. Photo by Sam George.

One of the artists who responded to the call for work was photographer, painter and sculptor William Christenberry, perhaps Alabama’s most well-known artistic export. Christenberry received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in fine arts from the University of Alabama, and the body of his work involves documenting the areas of Alabama where he spent his youth, so he has a personal connection to our plight, though he now lives in Washington, D.C.

“The Alabama depicted in Christenberry’s photographs is one of little change,” says Wilson. “The subjects he shoots have aged slowly over time, worn away little by little. They seem almost permanent. This is such a marked contrast with the landscape so suddenly and completely scarred by the tornadoes.”

Both Wilson and Frazer, a photographer by trade, will also be donating work to the exhibit, which is called “REBUILD Alabama.” In fact, the two paintings by Wilson were originally purchased by Richard Scrushy and were reclaimed by Frazer in Scrushy’s estate sale. Over 80 other artists are participating in the show, with all proceeds benefiting Habitat for Humanity. There will be impromptu live music by Taylor Hollingsworth, Henry Dunkle, Sanders Bohlke, Duquette Johnston and The Great Book of John, as well as a live auction at 7 p.m., which will include the Christenberry piece as well as a number of other artists.

There is still plenty of work to be done, and money that needs to be raised if we are to see Alabama through to a complete recovery, but if people like Wes Frazer and John Lytle Wilson continue to rally their peers in creative ways, than we will get there, no matter how bumpy the ride.

The exhibit opening is May 26, from 5- 9.p.m., with refreshments donated by Rojo, and will run through June 24.

ACME Gallery is located at 1305 Second Ave. North. For more information on “REBUILD Alabama” contact John Lytle Wilson at

Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on May 26, 2011.

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