"For me, this is culturally representative of where I grew up," says Garde Rail Gallery co-owner and Georgia native Karen Light-Piña. As a proprietor of the Northwest's only gallery for folk and outsider art, Light-Piña has spent the past 10 years bringing elements of her native region, the American South, to Seattle. In the Pioneer Square gallery she owns with her husband Marcus, you'll find paintings and sculptures from the likes of folk-art icons Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Buddy Snipes, Mose Tolliver, and the now-legendary Howard Finster (folks familiar with R.E.M. and Talking Heads lore will recognize his name for doing some of the bands' album covers). To the untrained eye, the pieces Light-Piña specializes in are crude, childlike, and lacking in skill. But fans of the work see them as examples of pure, uninhibited expression. It's as if the excitement of creating art is lost when the artists are rigorously trained and educated. Oftentimes, they are simple documents of people the artists knew or things that have happened in their lives. "It's the visual blues," says Light-Piña. "Every time Marcus and I go down to Jimmy Lee Sudduth's [in rural Alabama], we stand in his yard for hours and he tells us all about the time that an art dealer left his house and was driving down the road and got into a head-on collision. This had a huge impact on him and his art. That, and how his wife's grave had to be dug up and moved so they could build a Wal-Mart. And his dog dying. That painting right there is of his dog that died," she says. Light-Piña first began collecting folk art in 1989, but didn't open the gallery (originally located in Belltown) until June of 1998. The space was offered to her for $200 by a decent-hearted developer who had to demolish the building at the end of summer but wanted to do something interesting with it until then. She and her husband borrowed cash out of their credit cards (most of the artists are suspicious of checks), flew to the South, and bought up as much Southern folk art as they could to bulk up their collection. On opening night, they sold all but three paintings. Since then, they've run the gallery, salon style, out of a Pioneer Square apartment, in Columbia City, and finally, in the Pioneer Square gallery they have now occupied since 2004. In that time, Garde Rail has become the go-to gallery for mostly Southern-folks-turned-Seattleites looking for a taste of home for their walls. Light-Piña doesn't find much in the way of folk art in these parts, outside of wood-carvings of bears and salmon. But she did discover local great Gregory Blackstock, an autistic man with obsessive-compulsive disorder who takes large sheets of taped-together paper and catalogs items on them with ink, marker, and pencil. They are intimate illustrations of such things as knives, insects, race boats, and presidential memorials. Not only has Light-Piña shown his work at the gallery, she also published a book of his work and now represents him. He's a mini-celebrity on the local scene, and because of his OCD, this has caused him to worry over his work. "He keeps saying, 'I can't run out of work for my customers!'" she says. But his artwork is also dependent on what he's obsessed with at the time. Currently, Light-Piña says it's the Vermont sugar maple factories, which can be traced back to his childhood, when his grandmother brought him a jar of maple syrup after she had visited. "Everything [Greg] does has something to do with his past," she says. "Somehow, it's always rooted in his childhood." Garde Rail, which is closed for the summer through August, will be exhibiting all-new work by Blackstock in December.—110 Third Ave., 621-1055, www.garde-rail.com.
Karen Light-Piña's Picks
Best Months: July and August. "The summer is very liberating and strangers are more likely to smile and say hello."
Best Art at a Downtown Bar: The diorama at the Nite Lite. "So sweetly homespun, mixed with an ounce of tragedy."
Best Pianist: The late Howard Bulson. "He reminded me of Henry Miller, and had an office nameplate that rested atop his piano!"
Best Flower: The dinner-plate-size poppies. "We don't grow those big ole poppies down in Georgia. It might even be illegal."
Best View of Downtown: "That first view of the skyline coming from the airport heading north on I-5; that vantage point reaffirms why I'm here every time."