An Artist, A Folklorist & A Monk Walk Into A Barn…

Yes, really.

There is no punchline…just a short little story .

Last Tuesday, as I arrived at St. Bernard’s Abbey & Conference Center in Cullman, Alabama for the 2013 Alabama Community Scholars Institute, we went on a tour of the campus with  Br. Brendan Seipal, O.S.B.. We were supposed to go for a walking tour, but thankfully Br. Brendan suggested we take the golf cart due to the 98 degree heat. If you have never visited St. Bernard’s Abbey, I highly recommend it for your next meeting, conference, or retreat. They welcome “people of all ages and faiths…to find here a place of peace, joy and refreshment.”

During the tour, we stopped at the old dairy barn (which has been beautifully ‘re-purposed’ as a theater and event space) where…An Artist (me), a Folklorist (actually 2 – Joey Brackner from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Mary Allison Haynie from the Alabama Folklife Association), an Educator (Wanda Robertson from University of North Alabama, and a monk (Br. Brendan) walked into a barn. (Ok. I know, the old joke takes you into a ‘bar’ and not a ‘barn’ – but…)

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We continued our tour of St. Bernards Abbey with a tour of the Ava Maria Grotto with it’s manager and the artist behind a large portion of the sculptures, Mr. Leo Schwaiger. This was my first visit to the Grotto, and it was so much more than I ever imagined. The sculptures and buildings are true Folk Art. Everywhere you look there are stones, seashells, marbles, re-purposed copper plumbing materials, and miniature hand-carved stonework. From the small roadside shrines, to Roman Basilicas, to Noah’s Ark, to the Great Wall of China – the grotto is filled with miniature works of art, each complimented with the most beautiful landscaping of ferns, flowers, and succulents (headed by Mrs. Schwaiger).

My words cannot begin to describe the beauty – that is why I carry my camera everywhere I go….

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Leo graciously shared many stories about how the grotto was created, while showing us the works he had ‘looked after’ since taking over the work in 1963 from Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St. Bernard Abbey. We learned SO much more about Leo on Friday…and once we finish editing our interview, I promise to share. Until then, you can view a short video clip of our tour HERE.

This was all fun, educational, and beautiful…but why were we there?

The Alabama Community Scholars Institute  is part of the educational programming offered by the Alabama Folklife Association, and is graciously sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. ACSI is “a training program for people and professionals who want to research, document and present various aspects of Alabama’s traditional culture—the music, food, crafts, stories, celebrations, work traditions, etc., of their own communities.”

This is a huge part of what Black Belt Treasures does on a daily basis. We are collecting and sharing our regions rich culture. We are helping to revive the arts, crafts, stories, traditions, and cultural treasures of the Black Belt and pass them on to a new generation. We are teaching people to take what they have, what they have learned, use their natural talents and resources to make what they need, what they can share, and what can hopefully bring some sustainable income to themselves and their communities.

The Black Belt region is filled with stories. Everyone here has a story to tell.

We are trying to find ways to capture those stories from our artists and craftsmen for many current and future purposes…recording the stories for future generations,  for helping artists market their own work, for sharing these stories with those ‘outside’ our region, for improving the image of the Black Belt, and for many other purposes.

Each story is different, but each story tells so much about our region, our art, our communities and culture…and ourselves!

At the ACSI we enjoyed some amazing guest speakers…

We learned Best Practices and techniques from Kevin Nutt (Folklife Archivist at ADAH)

We learned Best Practices and techniques from Kevin Nutt (Folklife Archivist at ADAH)

We learned about current audio and visual recording technology from ASCA's Steve Grauberger.

We learned about current audio and visual recording technology from ASCA’s Steve Grauberger.


We learned about using social media tools to share our region’s stories with the amazing and fabulous Ginger of “Deep Fried Kudzu.”                                            Speaking of…I found this great cartoon the other day (below) that really explains how to use all of the different social media sites.


We learned to conduct our own Oral History Interviews - which each came with their own exciting lessons, experiences, and stories! We had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Boyd, who is both an Education Specialist AND a very successful Truck Farmer!

We learned to conduct our own Oral History Interviews – which each came with their own exciting lessons, experiences, and stories! We had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Boyd, who is both an Education Specialist AND a very successful Truck Farmer! Read more about Mr. Boyd HERE1015721_10200934823469242_786483648_o 

We got to tour some wonderful sites in Cullman – which is steeped in a rich German heritage and home to North Alabama AgriplexPeinhardt Living History Farm, and the Cullman County Museum, beautiful churches, and a thriving historic downtown district filled with unique locally owned shops and businesses.  “Well known to the state of Alabama for economic contributions in agriculture, Cullman is the center of trade and commerce for a vast collection of century and heritage farms that spread across the surrounding landscape.”

Peinhardt Living History Farm…

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Downtown Cullman…

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The Churches…

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 And of course…we enjoyed some great food… You cannot go anywhere in the south without learning what food that region is known for! And in Cullman we experienced BBQ from historic Johnny’s BBQ, German traditional sweets from our friends at Peinhardt Farms, a fabulous variety of fresh vegetables at St. Bernards Abbey (note the yellow, orange, and purple carrots below), and the piece de resistance – steak, orange rolls, and lemon pie from All Steak! Yum…

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“The genius of a folk melody or story [or art] is not the feeling that it’s original, but quite the opposite – the feeling that it has existed all along!”
~ American journalist, Susan Orlean

All in all it was a GREAT week. I returned to Black Belt Treasures with a better understanding of how to begin on our upcoming Black Belt Quilt Trail inventory, how to conduct interviews and assessments along the way, and enough inspiration, motivation, and ideas to last a few years! I made new friends who are working on similar projects across the state and into Mississippi who I know we will be sharing ideas and stories with soon.

So…if you know any Black Belt area quilters, historic quilts, or quilting guilds – please let me know ( We are looking to stitch together our collective quilt heritage, weave our stories together, and spread this quilting experience across our nineteen counties. We need community volunteers to help us collect and inventory these histories, to record the stories, and document our quilting heritage! If you have the time, enthusiasm, and desire to help us – we would love to have you!

Thank you for listening – and I hope to see you soon at Black Belt Treasures, attending one of our art classes, volunteering, attending Black Belt Reads book club, visiting our cultural arts partners, or supporting the arts and culture of Alabama’s Black Belt in your own unique way!

Thank You!

kristin law

kristins signature

Kristin C. Law
Arts Programs & Marketing Manager
Black Belt Treasures