Alabama folk artist She-She Vaughn was one of the first artists to bring her creations to Pepper Place. When she initially set up her booth, Pepper Place patrons, unaccustomed to art being offered, would frequently ask her, “Where are the tomatoes?” So in order to compete with the popularity of the most sought after summer vegetable, she began to paint huge, vibrant red tomatoes, which were immediately successful in attracting smiling, curious patrons to her booth.
Several years ago, one of her massive, boldly painted tomatoes caught the attention of Rachael Ray’s television production team and She-She explained, “They found me on the side of the road in Gadsden.”
While she was set up with her art along Corridor 127 as part of “The World’s Longest Yardsale,” which stretches for 675 miles from Gadsden to Hudson, Mich., the team spent several hours talking with and filming her and purchased several pieces of her “Food Art” before they left. At the end of one of her shows, Rachael featured a print of She-She’s painting “Bama BLT,” which depicts two extra-large slices of tomato, bacon, and lettuce, with a jar of Bama mayonnaise, before giving it to an audience member.
A city girl until she was 12, She-She spent the rest of her growing up years relishing life on her parents’ North Shelby County farm. Grateful because her parents allowed her to be creative, she drew, painted, and re-purposed no longer used items and she proudly notes that she has carefully saved her very first box of crayons.
While reflecting on her wide range of life experiences, She-She noted, “I probably had fifty jobs in my life.” As a young adult, she was hired to run a one person optical shop, where she made, fit, and repaired glasses, and ultimately became a certified optician.
Later, as a training coordinator for a large optical chain, she was based in Pensacola and traveled all over Florida, realizing her dream to live on the beach. That job also allowed her to use her art as she created her own training visual aids, which she described as “flip charts with art.”
After joining Toastmasters to improve her job-related public speaking, She-She added motivational speaking to her resume.
She-She came home to help her mother take care of her father when he became critically ill. Needing an occasional outlet from this around the clock caregiving, she “gathered up some junk” and set up a booth at Tannehill Trade Days. From junk she moved into antiques which she sold for several years before venturing into selling her own art.
A mixed bag
Today She-She shares her unconventional, unique art and her gentle, open spirit through a mixed bag of canvases. Traveling all over the state in a van decorated with the art of children living at the Spirit of Hope Youth Ranch in Wilsonville, she teaches art in grades one through five and firmly asserts, “I am not an art teacher. I am a teaching artist.” Incorporating reading and writing into these activities, she works closely with teachers and school staff.
Once a month for more than 10 years, She-She has visited a nursing home for a “Champagne Art Brunch” where the residents participate in an art activity while enjoying light snacks, coffee, and champagne.
She directs art therapy classes for individuals with mental illness. Corporations hire her to conduct art classes to serve as a reward or therapy for their employees and parents hire her for birthday parties. After breaking up some pieces of pottery for one of her own projects, She-She realized, “We all get to a breaking point — don’t we?”
So her newest party was born, the Breaking Point Party, where all participants must wear long pants and she provides goggles and items to smash. The resulting bits and pieces are used in the participants’ works of art.
With unwavering faith that almost anything can be used to create She-She art, this energetic, unflappable artist kayaks on the Cahaba River, searching for driftwood she can incorporate into her work. Left over scraps of “critter tin” which her dad attached at the base of the barn to keep unwanted animals out, boards from her storm-damaged deck, and cardboard of all sizes, become the perfect recipients of her creativity.
At her family’s request, She-She bought a laptop computer and after giving it away in frustration, deemed the purchase as “the most expensive mistake I ever made.” However, she kept the cardboard box and used it to make angels for one of her pieces. Smiling, but serious, she points out, “All my angels don’t have wings. They haven’t earned them yet.”
Discarded doors are a real find for She-She. Certain that “God opened the door to the world of art for me,” some of her largest works are made utilizing them. At Black Rock Bistro in downtown Jasper, one of her doors hangs over a pew-like bench she custom painted. This enormous painting of a largemouth bass admonishes, “If you rock the boat, make sure you can swim.”
Distinctive pet portraits are also part of She-She’s repertoire and she asks the owner three questions before starting one. What is the pet’s name and gender? What are its likes and dislikes? If your pet was human, what would its occupation be?
Her classroom work with fourth graders studying Alabama History reconnected She-She to the state symbols. As a result, yellowhammers, racking horses, camellias, and oak leaf hydrangeas often find a niche in her work.
She-She recently discovered five-gallon gasoline cans. She is working on a series with this latest endeavor, gracing one can with her attention-grabbing tomatoes and another with “Lady Liberty” holding the spout rather than her torch.
Fish appear regularly in her work. She-She explains that these creatures have a special place in her heart for varied reasons, including their spiritual connection, their large numbers in Alabama, which has more freshwater fish species than any other state, and her affection for her home state’s lakes and rivers.
Patrons of her work quickly notice that She-She almost always has a barracuda on display in her booth. While her art aptly tells its own story which is personalized by the viewer, She-She eagerly shares her story behind the barracuda. At an art show, in a casual conversation with another female artist She-She did not know well, the other artist made a vicious comment about She-She.
Taking the remark to heart, She-She could not let it go. So she decided to paint in an attempt to move on.
As she began to paint and work through her emotions, She-She recalled, “God took the brush in my hand and he drew a sharp-toothed fish and that was my first barracuda.” Characterizing the rest of her story as a “full circle experience,” She-She handily sold that first barracuda.
Shortly thereafter, she found her anger and resentment over the initial incident were replaced with sadness and empathy for the artist who must have had significant unhappiness in her life which caused her to lash out at another person without cause or provocation. Typical of her positive outlook, She-She turned an unpleasant episode into a learning experience for herself as well as others.
Staying busy on the farm preparing for the 47 art shows she participates in each year and keeping Birmingham shops such as Homewood Antiques & Marketplace well-supplied with her art, She-She typically has an extensive list of projects in progress. She admits, “I’m not happy unless I’m working on eight things at a time…but it’s never just eight…” She-She’s well-established Walker County kinship continues to grow. “Sunnyview,” her contribution to the Walker County Arts Alliance 50-Mule Team Public Art Project, cheerfully resides at Ridgeview Health Services in Jasper.
On May 12, She-She will once again engage visitors at Art in the Park at Gamble Park. Amidst her boldly portrayed tomatoes, angels, and fish, she will charm her patrons with her fun, yet serious art, her warm, genuine smile, and her appealing willingness to find goodness and blessings in every situation.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890