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New York City Southern Style: Alabama Studio Weekend in the Shoals

by Penne J. Laubenthal

Imagine starting off your Saturday morning with the perfect Bloody Mary, garnished in typical southern fashion with pickled okra, and served to you by one of the country’s foremost clothing designers, Billy Reid, in his boutique housed in the historic and elegantly appointed Pickett Place in beautiful downtown Florence. Then to be offered a sumptuous breakfast catered by culinary artist Betty Sims, author of Southern Scrumptious: How to Cater Your Own Dinner Party, while being surrounded by a coterie of fascinating folks like Mayor Bobby Irons and his delightful wife Sara, Jay Leavitt of Plan 9 in Richmond and childhood pal of Patterson Hood, and the delightful and talented Greg Spradlin. When I left Pickett Place, I was carrying the cd …and Twiced as Gone, a gift from Spradlin, and a silk screened tee shirt I had purchased that was designed by Reid for the occasion and made of southern cotton the color of and softer than a dove’s breast. I wore the shirt to Natalie Chanin’s picnic at McFarland Park on the banks of the “singing river.”

Alabama Studio weekend had its genesis six years ago in the company picnic of Natalie Chanin who creates limited-edition, rendered-by-hand, jewelry, clothing, home furnishing and textiles, using a mixture of recycled and organic materials made by local talent. Chanin is the founder of the design company Project Alabama and now is the head of Alabama Chanin. Four years ago Chanin teamed up with other Shoals artists including fashion designer Billy Reid and photographer Robert Rausch to create this unprecedented celebration.

"It's just really a showcase of the South," Rausch said. .Once people come, they love it.” Chanin said, the Studio weekend is “about sharing community - the people, artists, food and laughter - I think the people who come, come because they want to be a part of that."

Just what is so unprecedented about the Alabama Studio Weekend? First of all, it is not a music festival or a literary festival, or an art festival, or a film festival, or a pilgrimage of historic sites, or a gourmet food fest or even a panoply of arts, but an amalgam of the best of all things southern served up in a variety of intimate venues all over the Quad Cities, from Florence to Sheffield, to Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia. In this cultural collage, country music cozies up to couture and industrial design and the rural art of story telling shares the stage with haute cuisine. It is this comfortable pairing of seeming disparates that characterizes the Studio Weekend, and in a larger sense, the South itself.

No where was that marriage of opposites more graphically demonstrated than at the screening Saturday night of J. D. Wilkes's southern gothic documentary Seven Signs in the fabulous hi- tech, cutting edge studio space of GAS (Green Acres Studio), Robert Rausch's extraordinary photography and creative arts studio in Tuscumbia. Wilkes's film, which has been compared to Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, was shown at GAS, following a gourmet dinner at Ivy Green complete with music and storytelling.

Dessert, homemade bread pudding with warm run sauce and fresh strawberry cobbler, was served in the patio entry to Rausch's studio and enjoyed to the accompaniment of authentic country music. Contented guests deployed themselves around the studio and sipped Lynchburg lemonade while viewing Wilkes’s amazing documentary.

I would be remiss if I did not provide a litany of the ten fabulous courses that were served under the big white tent at Ivy Green. In addition to some of the best shrimp and grits I have ever put in my mouth, there was tarragon grilled shrimp served on a bed of shoe peg corn, cucumber, and red onion; strawberry gazpacho; blackened shrimp creole; cornmeal encrusted grouper with sweet pea ravioli; soft boiled eggs with Alabama goat cheese and smoked pecans; beer braised rabbit on black pepper biscuits; spring vegetable tarts; BBQ beef brisket; and fried green tomatoes. I honestly believe I could live on fried green tomatoes. All the ingredients in the dishes were indigenous to Alabama as were the wide variety of wines that were offered. Yes, there are wineries in Alabama. As my friends and I walked down the brick path at Ivy Green, the full moon shown through the trees, surrounded by a huge rainbow corona and the scent of boxwood spiced the night air. I could almost see the figures of young Helen and her amazing teacher Anne Sullivan moving in the shadows.

On Saturday afternoon, there were a variety of tour options—the Wall built by Tom Hendrix in honor of his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay who walked the Trail of Tears, the Rosenbaum home by Frank Lloyd Wright, W. C. Handy’s birthplace, Fame Studios, and Muscle Shoals Sound, to name only a few. My friend had never seen what Harvey Robbins had done for downtown Tuscumbia, and as it was her birthday, we elected to take a walk down Main Street—perusing Audie Mescal boutique, indulging in an ice cream cone at The Palace, resisting the tempting Italian restaurant Frank’s Place, browsing the incomparable Coldwater Books, and concluding our ramblings at Spring Park with its man-made waterfall by artist Audwin McGee, its lake and fountain (modeled on Opryland), its larger than life carving of  Chief Tuscumbia, and its impressive bronze statue of a Native American woman called "Sacred Tears" by Alabama artist Branko Medenica.

We had reservations at Coldwater Inn across from the Music Hall of Fame, and we made it back there just in time to meet my sister and another friend and dress for dinner. You must experience this hotel to believe it. Not only is the interior of Coldwater Inn a feast for the eyes, it is staffed by the friendliest and most accommodating folks you would ever want to meet. They never flinched when we said we were cramming four adults into one room—which was quite spacious and comfortable—and they did not charge us extra for the room or the full buffet breakfast which we were served on Sunday morning. The South, you gotta love it!

Will I be back next year? You can bet your bottom dollar I will, and I will make reservations for both Friday and Saturday night at the Coldwater Inn so that I do not miss a single moment of the weekend. I will even bring several more of my friends. As I said in my dispatch, the secret is too good to keep.

Alabama Studio Weekend is getting out the word that the South (and not just the metropolitan South) is teeming with talented and innovative artists. Thanks to the vision and imagination of Chanin, Reid, and Rausch—all of whom lived in New York, California, or abroad before returning "home"—Alabama is making a new name for itself as representing the penultimate blend of art, music, culture, history, and merchantry.

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