The Serpents of Bienville is a community-based project centered on Alabama culture, history, myth, and folklore. The stories bestowed on us from generations past are just as important as the stories we are shaping with our actions today. We would love nothing more than to hear from you, the vibrant and influential artistic community, if you are open to being a part of the tale we are working hard to create. So tell us your story, share your wisdom, and help us create a community we can all be proud to call our Alabama.
I met Harriet Shade a few years ago through the local art community in Mobile, Alabama. Right away I was struck by her excitement and encouragement when it came to getting artwork out to the public, getting it in their hands, and hanging up in their house. Having the ability to get art out to the public is sometimes just as important as creating the artwork itself. Harriet has an understanding of the emotional importance art, and the creation of it, can have on a community, along with how it can unify it. Harriet has had years of experience with local community organizations. She was one of the founding members of the Lagniappe publication which focuses on the community of downtown Mobile. She went on to become the Director of Communications for the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. Later, after transitioning into hands on work with the local art scene, Harriet and Carl Norman opened Spire gallery in 2013, which has since become a staple to the art community in Mobile. I have always been grateful to be involved in projects she is putting together, and excited to see fruits of their labor. Naturally, we wanted to see what her perspective would be about local folklore, and how it's influenced her and her lifestyle. Without further ado, here's Harriet.
1. Give us an overview of your art medium and style.
I’m a writer and I dabble in mixed media, but I don’t really share much of what I do. My words are my personal release.
2. Are you an Alabamian, born and raised?
I am not. If not, what brought you here? My mother was raised in the South. She is from West Point Mississippi. She always wished that she had been able to raise my sister and I in the South but due to my father working for Dupont, we grew up on the East Coast instead. I spent my summers as a child first in Pascagoula, Mississippi and then later in Orange Beach, AL with my aunt. Even though I was an “East Coast” girl, I had strong Southern roots fostered by summers filled with sailing, crabbing, fishing and everything else the Gulf Coast life entails. Tell us a little about the area you are from. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware just minutes outside of Philadelphia, PA. It is a different kind of beauty than what you see here in the South, but just as intoxicating at times. It is ripe with woods, forests, rivers and streams, all outside of a bustling city filled with culture. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I feel blessed to have experienced the best of both coasts. Because of my ties to the South I decided to attend college down here because I felt as if there was much more I needed to explore. I didn’t come here with the intention to stay, but I became entranced with this area and especially with this town. It is unlike any other place I have ever been. I fell in love with Mobile, with New Orleans, with the beaches all along the way and ended up making this my home.
3. How does your experience with Alabama and the southern culture influence your art, in any form?
The storytellers of the South are some of the most inspiring authors I’ve experienced. From those who tell their stories through words, such as Eugene Walter, to those who tell their stories through objects and art, such as Bruce Larsen, their messages come through in the most unique and intriguing of ways. It influences me to dig deep, to put my heart and soul onto paper, to tell the good and the bad and the ugly, to just share what’s inside me to make sure that a legacy exists once I am gone from this realm.
4. Do you have a project you are currently working on or promoting?
I always have something happening. (laughs) Skateboard art shows, Art shows at SPIRE, my work for my clients at SPIRE, organizing the art festival aspect of the SouthSounds Music and Arts Festival, managing the marketing and scheduling for Chris Cumbie Art, being his artist assistant and a few other things in the works that I can’t talk about just yet.
5. Are there any community projects, festivals, or gatherings you are either a part of, enjoy attending, or think that the area is lacking and would like to see organized?
I work with SouthSounds Music and Arts Festival to manage the art market part of that 3 day event. As for what we are lacking? Mobile, and the area in general, is missing a true celebration of our region’s outsider artists. The self-taught talents that this area possesses is unrivaled. We need a festival that celebrates these hidden and not-so-hidden gems. One that showcases the immeasurable talent that is born from the deep South. This is a task that I am preparing to personally take on and hope to soon have the funding and support needed. I am also in the very early, developmental stages of working on a gathering of artistic minds. One similar to the now defunct Doo-Nanny that used to take place in Seale, Alabama on the property of renowned folk artist Butch Anthony. I had the extreme pleasure of being able to attend this event in its last years and the hole that it has left in the Southern artistic community is one that I would like to help fill.
6. The Serpents of Bienville project came about because of our unending love for the stories that the South provides. Can you share with us your favorite story—whether it’s a ghost story, myth, fable, history lesson, or even some crazy tale an ancestor passed down—and how the story made it’s way to you.
I don’t know if this counts as a “story” but I have been quite obsessed with W.C. Rice’s Cross Garden in Prattville since the day I stumbled upon it 20 years ago. This man was dedicated to his personal cause and expressed it in avery public and unique way. Sadly, he passed a few years back and what remains of his roadside display dwindles daily. But each chance I get, I get to stop by and visit, I do. His spirit and essence still remain.