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Madison artists connect, share lives, via FLAG

By Judi Martha Collins, published in the November/December 2021 issue of Lakelife.

Interior of the Free Little Art Gallery. FLAG is an on- going community visual arts initiative sponsored by Madison Public Arts Commission. For more information, contact Ken Kocher at 706-752-7952 or

Madison artist Beverly Jones displays her miniature art sized for FLAG. Behind her hangs “Wanderlust,” a 48”x60” mixed media painting inspired by feeling Covid’s restraints and her imagined symbolic journey into a world of beautiful places.

Noted abstract and impressionist artist Beverly Jones usually “paints big.” Her art is scaled to grace expansive walls, offset high ceilings and serve as decorative counterpoints to architectural surfaces like rock fireplaces and beamed timbers. But as a new surge of COVID’s Delta variant sweeps through Georgia and threatens a cherished part of life in her community, Beverly puts aside her large art and “paints small.” Like other artists, she donates her miniature painting to help keep the arts alive in Madison. Across town, textile artist Mandi Yates-Elwood lays aside her unfinished, felted needle Santa Claus. It’s just before the yule season — a busy time to create her cherished Christmas characters for the holiday market. Yet, like Beverly, Mandi

pauses in her work and creates a

miniature, soft-sculpture pumpkin and contributes it to the cause.

And at Morgan County High School, artist/art teacher Ty Manning expands his usual art curriculum and guides students to create miniature paintings. It is his opportunity to teach Madison’s youth that art can serve a civic cause. It would become a constant motion as one, then another local artist gets involved. Then, Madison Artists Guild sponsors a free making-miniatures art workshop, and people who have never before made art join in. Some sign their work. Others create anonymously. But everyone who volunteers wants to save the sense of human connection they shared before COVID threatened their community arts program.

Public Arts Commission members Ann Dodys, Chris Cooke and Elaine Jackson are joined by Main Street Director Karen Robertson and Council member Eric Joyce to officially open the Free Little Art Gallery.

Madison is known for its visual arts — thanks to the Public Arts Commission’s (PAC) mission to make the city’s art accessible to residents and tourists. But COVID wreaked havoc with fulfilling that mission, and many art lovers have been unable to attend new exhibits or local galleries and museums. It is not just the loss of art’s beauty that suffers, but also the lost sense of shared community that happens when people share art. To address the problem, PAC members create a unique art alternative. They build a “Free Little Art Gallery,” called FLAG, where artists at all skill levels create art dioramas outfitted with miniature paintings, sculptures, woodwork, pottery, tex- tiles, metal work, collage, and other art forms. The miniature gallery is meant to bring together the community, to stem the tide of isolation, and to celebrate a shared love for the visual arts.

Woodworker Greg Bleakley and other local artists support FLAG, a safe place where artists can share their love for the visual arts.

“FLAG’s beauty is in the spontaneous community spirit of artists and aspiring artists who exchange art as serious or whimsical, and signed or anonymous as each artist wishes,” says PAC co-chair Clare Wolfe. “Instead of a ‘heavy’ curated art vibe, FLAG is inspired by a refresh- ing, welcoming spirit.” Woodworker Greg Bleakley explains “FLAG is where artists display and exchange art in any medium free of charge. It just needs to be small enough to fit comfortably in the miniature gallery.”

Usually, the art is hand painted or hand-made. There is something inexplicably comforting about the hand-to- hand connection with another person who loves art, too.

Asked why she participates, Beverly notes the value of expressiveness in a time when many say they feel isolated. “Art is my way to reach out and connect with others. FLAG reminds us to feel and respond to the hu- man urge to share our lives, and sharing art with others through FLAG is a safe way for us all to embrace our need for community.” “Miniature art is...miniature,” explains Mandi. “Think dollhouse size! To ‘work small’ captures an artist’s deepest concentration and makes the art intimate. Art is important. It is from the heart. Everyone should have access to art.”

Textile artist Mandi Yates-Elwood adds her miniature needle felted pumpkin to Madison’ new miniature art gallery called the FLAG.

While there is no requirement to give art to get art, the goal is to offer everyone an opportunity to try their hand at miniature art. The purpose is to share an inter- active, creative experience that helps supply the gallery with art to exchange.

To contribute art, go anytime to the FLAG located at 125 West Jefferson Street. Near the MAGallery, find a white, wooden box with a glass door on a post facing the sidewalk. Peer inside and discover the delightful, doll- house sized gallery. To research the story, this writer visits Madison’s Free Little Art Gallery. I arrive to find a man exchanging his painting for another. To give privacy and social distance, I stay in my car and observe as he studies each artistic rendering, removes first one, then another, and puts his own creation in its place. Each time, he rearranges the art into his own vision of a diorama.

The man makes his final choice, swaps his art for one he takes, and closes the glass door. As he walks away, he looks again at his new-found treasure, smiles, then carefully tucks the pint-sized painting into his wallet for safekeeping. More than any words I might write, the care with which he placed his art, the quiet serenity that played across his face, and the personal note written on the back of his art is the essence of this story about the FLAG on West Jefferson Street and the priceless treasure of shared human expression contained within. At this writing, some donated miniature art include oil, watercolor and acrylic paintings, a wire sculpture, paper collages, porcelain figurines, jewelry, a straw basket with hand-painted eggs, a paper sculpture butterfly, a pottery angel, a wooden squirrel, a ceramic pig, a UGA bulldog and an assemblage of materials found in nature.

Judi Collins and Lakelife extend a special “Thank you” to Ken Kocher, information & design coordinator, City of Madison-Main Street & Planning, for his assistance in coordinating photography and information for this story.

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