There is this red dirt drive just off the highway, some place east of Fort Benning, Georgia. If you are speeding or lost in dreams yet unrealized, you’ll surely miss it. You might not even notice the sign declaring Floria’s Folk Art Gallery. Or the circle-board painted blue declaring Jesus is Soon to Return. Drive by too quickly and you’ll miss entirely the Letter from Hell.
Back in 2007, the first time I met Floria, there was only a small sign outside the shop. If Floria hadn’t been wearing her signature floral hat and busily working on a project outdoors, I would have missed her then. Thankfully, I have mastered my mama’s technique of stopping on the dime and giving nine-cents change. That first time, I came away from Floria’s with a picture of an African American girl reading a book. It sits in the frame Floria painted atop a bookshelf in my office. It cheers me, that painting does, and serves as a reminder of the places I’ve been and the people I met along the way.
Floria’s husband was alive then, blissfully unaware of the cancer that would emaciate him, strong man that he was. Their boy was alive then, too. That was before the motorcycle accident that took his life, only three months after he bought that trailer home and sat it down on property right next door to his momma. Good thing he did that, too, considering how it was Floria who then cared for the dead man’s children. Raised up her grandbabies, Floria did, like the millions of other grandparents worldwide who end up doing the tending to generations of their babies’ babies.
“Last one graduated this past year,” Floria said. “I’m a free woman now.” Free to paint that totem pole sitting on the sawhorse in her workshop.
Her husband bought the cinder block building that serves as Floria’s workshop after she quit working at the shirt factory. She quit because Floria didn’t know anything about something called worker’s compensation or disability insurance. Her bosses at the factory took advantage of her ignorance, let her quit when she fell ill on account of a new chemical they started using. They didn’t tell her that she had workers protection rights.
Lots of companies have done that, taken advantage of people who didn’t know any better. The company was sued later by more educated employees, but the lawyers told Floria the settlement didn’t pertain to her. They told her that even though Floria swoll up fatter than a WWE wrestler on the very first day they brung that chemical into the plant.
She grew up in Alabama, the fifteenth child out of a gaggle of eighteen kids, all born of the same mother Mary, and fathered by Pops Threats. The brother a step or two down from her does art work like Floria, but the rest of the bunch, they aren’t so inclined.
The vision for her work comes from the Lord. His calling upon her. Every painting has a story. Pointing to a particularly winsome and colorful bird, Floria says she was looking at a picture book that displayed a chicken with long flowing feathers when she got the inspiration for that particular character.
But not all paintings are so whimsical. Her angel paintings can carry warnings, prophesies, if you will. Beware the False Prophets warns one. There are so many false prophets these days, Floria says. People who claim to be Jesus Followers but to whom Jesus would reply, “I knew you not.”
Like who? I ask.
Reverend Ike, she replies without a moment’s hesitation.
Around this region of the South, Reverend Ike is known as a Prosperity Gospel preacher, always promising something over the airwaves as long as you send him a few dollars. Not unlike political parties in that way: “Just send your contribution of $5, $10, or more.”
Floria doesn’t count Donald Trump as a false prophet. She doesn’t consider him a prophet in any form or fashion. Donald Trump is only interested in Donald Trump, Floria says. “Alls he cares about is his own self.”
That should be the Gospel Truth for anybody paying attention.
Her art is the means by which she ministers. That Letter from Hell stands alongside a call to Jesus. They both serve a purpose to passerbys.
“Some people might not ever read the Word of God,” Floria explains. “They might even go to church but never read the Word. Some never hear it or read it, but they will read it if I paint it.”
Floria likes to talk about her Savior and how he’s been faithful to her all these years.
“I could talk about Jesus all day long,” she says.
But she’ll talk art a plenty, too, given the chance. “I like to paint school buses and all the children’s happy faces.”
She also likes brightly-colored flowers and sunshine. Experimenting with one particular piece, Floria crafted the faces out of clay and then painted over them. “I love to garden,” she explains. “I think of the sun as a friend. Whenever the sun is out, it’s like a friend come to visit.”
I bought the painting with the red bird because even though we might not see each other but once in a long while Floria’s work makes me feel like a dear friend has come for a visit.
The goodness of her heart shines through her work and warms me like Georgia sunshine.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY (Mercer University Press).