Artwork that has come from the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MSNHA) region has ranged from Native American pottery and basket weaving to quilts and sustainable fashion. Theatre and movie houses also played an important role in the social lives of the region's residents throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Early Folk Art
Much of North Alabama's early art was influenced by the roots of the European migrants who moved to the region in the early 1800s. Many of these migrants had settled in other areas on the Atlantic coast and in the south before catching "Alabama Fever" when the federal government began auctioning off land in Alabama. These new residents bought tracts of land and began growing crops, such as cotton. The early emigrant's agricultural lifestyle helped produce some of the region's best known folk art styles including quilting, needlework, and pottery.
Quilting for many women was a tedious process that included creating their own textiles. Pre-made fabric was expensive to purchase and sometimes scarce in certain areas of the region. Quilt patterns were often influenced by national and international trends, but more often they were influenced by the family and availability of materials. In some cases, quilts were created as a fundraiser by quilting bees which met primarily at churches or individual's homes. For the most part, though, quilting was done within a single family because of the difficulty in traveling to another home.
Some of the earliest forms of pottery in the Muscle Shoals region came from early Native American tribes, which were known for their decorative pottery pieces such as bowls, jugs, and other vessels. In later time, several pottery makers in Limestone County created their own pottery pieces, primarily using salt-glazed and Albany-slipped glazes. These pottery makers included John W. Black, George and Joseph Collier, and John Maples. Perhaps the most well-known pottery maker from the region was Spruce Pine Pottery, which operated in Franklin County from the early- to mid-1900s.
A New Community of Artists
Contemporary art has been cultivated by the Muscle Shoals region through various artists' communities. Local artists have included photographers, painters, sculptors, fashion designers, and others. Some of the nationally-recognized artists with ties to the area include photojournalist Charles Moore, who practices taking photos around Tuscumbia as a teenager before going on to take stunning pictures of the Civil Rights Movement for the Montgomery Advertiser and Life Magazine.
In more recent times, fashion designer Natalie Chanin, a Florence native, has gained national awareness for her line of sustainable clothes and home décor. Another fashion designer, Billy Reid, started a line of designer clothing in Florence. Reid was named the 2010 Best New Menswear Designer in America by GQ magazine.
Throughout the year, the Muscle Shoals region plays homage to the next generation of artists through art festivals and regional art showings at local galleries. Some of the larger art museums in the region include:
Carnegie Visual Arts Center (Decatur)
Hartselle Fine Arts Center (Hartselle)
Kennedy-Douglas Center for the Arts (Florence)
Tennessee Valley Museum of Art (Tuscumbia)
University of North Alabama Art Gallery (Florence)
Silent Movies and "Talkies" Bring Communities Together
Theatres provided a wealth of entertainment to both residents of the cities and the outlining rural areas of North Alabama. Some of the earliest theatres in the area include the Princess Theatre for the Performing Arts (Decatur), the Ritz Theatre (Sheffield), the Majestic Theatre (Florence), the Ritz Theatre (Athens), and the Bay Theatre (Red Bay).
Other noted early 1900s movie theatres included the Capital Theatre (Decatur), Elite Theatre (an African American-only theatre – Decatur), Colbert Theatre (Sheffield), The Norwood Theatre (Florence), the Plaza Theatre (Athens), the Ritz Theatre (Athens), and the Roxy Theatre (Russelleville).
Some interesting facts:
The Shoals Theatre, when constructed in 1948, was one of the largest theatres in the state and had room for 1,350 people. It was also one of only four theatres at the time to have slide-back seats.
In Decatur, the Delite Theatre was the first theatre in town to have two projectors, allowing the movie to play continuously without a break to change the film.
The Bay Theatre in Red Bay featured a soda fountain in its lobby. The soda fountain and other salvaged pieces of the old theatre can be viewed at the Red Bay Museum.