From hieroglyphics painted with crushed berries in the time before speech, humans have embraced storytelling as the way to define what is important to a society. Alabama Funk, an artist’s collective in Birmingham that creates visual and wearable art, is following the storytelling tradition in their own way: constructed from found objects and natural elements, each piece is a preservation of Alabama’s heritage and lifestyle, handcrafted to tell the story of who or what inspired it.
Shoppers have seen their work at Harold & MOD, Soca Clothing, Wheelhouse Salon and other Magic City venues and events that welcome those who have an appreciation for earrings made of snake bones, lace bustles, wooden bangles and the like.
Alabama Funk is made up of Anne Conway, who creates jewelry and pen and ink line drawings; Sandra Swann, who works with textiles; Drew Lormand, who does woodworking and visual art; Ron Crutchfield, who works with wood; and Rob Clifton, who creates visual art.
They began as close friends that shared a passion for art and handmade creations, so the move to forming an artist’s collective was a natural progression.
“Chasing bands and making pieces together was what we were already doing, so making the choice to refer to ourselves as a collective was easy. I wish I could say I handpicked this group of artists. The truth is we were Alabama Funk long before we started printing stickers and vending together,” said Crutchfield, who comes from a family of seamstresses and carpenters and had the tools of the trade at his disposal from a young age.
Each person in the collective had been creating art individually for some time and would periodically gather together to bounce ideas off one another.
“We all were making on our own and mostly from what we had salvaged, found or thrifted. We met at coffee shops with a notebook and sat around sharing our ideas. From there, we sought opportunities to share and promote our work,” said Conway, who was originally inspired to make art by her Uncle Charles, who, although homeless for most of Anne’s life, found ways to create his art and bring her art supplies to spend time creating with her.
Most of Alabama Funk’s sales have been face-to-face with customers at events or commissioned pieces, but now that the collective’s work is featured in Harold & MOD and Soca, they have a chance to meet their supporters.
“Having a retail presence is a way for us to continue doing what we love. Alabama Funk recently got a new retailer — Soca Nashville and Soca Tuscaloosa will be carrying jewelry. It’s exciting to expand into other markets and stay true to making one-of-a-kind pieces without mass producing,” added Conway.
“We’re so thankful for Harold & Mod because we can share our art with the community every day. It’s a fantastic location for our creations since it’s solely stocked with locally produced or reclaimed items,” said Swann.
One of the values the collective agreed upon was a commitment to repurposing materials to create one-of-a-kind pieces. From scrap wood to vintage fabric, from shotgun shells to snake bones, each piece is made to tell a story.
“As a result of developing my own personal style, I started shopping at secondhand stores where I could find high quality clothing and textiles, vintage and new, that were unique and had potential to be perfect or made into something wonderful,” said Swann, who discovered her love of making things for others by first making things for herself, since her personal style, she says, was underrepresented or nonexistent in malls and chain stores. “It’s exciting to take an item that has been discarded and forgotten about and make it into a new creation.”
“The reward of seeing something come together from nothing is no doubt the reason for creating art,” said Lormand, who, now better known for his murals and live painting at concerts, was originally drawn to woodworking because his father was a cabinetmaker. “I was completely mesmerized by the screams of power tools and the towering stacks of wood. As I grew older and my knowledge grew, I realized the world of square corners and smooth surfaces of cabinetmaking didn’t necessarily have to apply. The access to scrap wood, that to most seemed invaluable, intrigued my artist’s eye and got me into creating things with little cost.”
The collective’s commitment to reduce, reuse, recycle is telling of their values as artists and as citizens of the world. Through their work, they’re showing that looking good doesn’t have to come at the price of sacrificing environmental conscience.
“Fashion is a horribly wasteful industry. People are accustomed to buy and discard, rinse and repeat. I want to create things that people can wear to express their individuality, and I want these things to be made from recycled materials. If I can take these items and make something that makes someone feel special — magical, even — then I stay inspired to do more,” Swann explained.
“I was raised by traditional, hardworking Southerners who taught me everything from patching my jeans to building barns, but mostly to be creative with what little we had,” said Crutchfield.
For each member of the collective, art is personal and integral to their lives, and that passion gets translated into their work.
“For high school, I went to a boarding school out of state and my art teacher would let me come in during my off period and lunch break to draw,” Conway said. “Art was the only way I coped with being somewhere I couldn’t leave.”
Today, Conway uses her artistic ability not merely to design jewelry or link elements together to form a necklace, but to intimately understand her creation, its relationship to the wearer and the feeling evoked from the pairing of the two.
“The intimacy of handcrafting jewelry is special to me because of its relation to the body. I like to think of the piece as an ornamental structure for the wearer and envision how it will lay on her skin or hair, how it will move with her body and how it will make her feel,” explained Conway.
“Taking what I need and leaving the rest, keeping close the ones who invoke the artist in me, and hearing my daughter say, ‘My daddy made that,’ are the reasons I call myself an artist, craftsman and proud father,” Crutchfield said.
Since starting Alabama Funk, the collective has received much positive feedback from the Birmingham community — including other artists and arts supporters. This support has fostered collaborations with Little Forest, Made in the Magic City, Digs Design, MAKEbhm, Charity Ponter and more.
Collaborations are a big part of Alabama Funk’s work. Currently, Lormand is partnered with local band Festival Expressions and creates their concert posters, album art, occasional stage production and does live painting at their shows. He recently designed the cover for their second album, Conversations, and was able to include elements of woodworking, the Birmingham skyline and a passion for music all into one piece.
Crutchfield is working with West Elm Birmingham on a line of furniture and plans to lead more woodworking workshops at MAKEbhm.
After collaborating on a custom jewelry line for the H&M show at Birmingham Fashion Week, Conway and Swann are now helping to create a custom jewelry line for Harold & Mod’s summer fashion show, REVIVAL, on July 26 at Trim Tab Brewing Company. Additionally, both Conway and Swann are working on the YWCA’s Art Camp for kids this summer.
“I remember my Papaw saying, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’” Crutchfield said. “I’m lucky to have this family of artists. We just happen to be pretty damn good at what we do.”