Coleman Center works to enable artists

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 27, 2004

This September, The Coleman Center, an Alabama non-profit arts center, welcomed Stuart Hyatt as an artist-in-residence. As the Coleman Center aims to enable artists and projects that will engage and reflect the unique surrounding community, Hyatt was sent out to discover local music. Upon his arrival, Stuart was struck by the popularity of original gospel music and the ways it was integrated into daily life. With his makeshift recording studio packed into the front seat of his truck, Hyatt set out down the dusty back roads of Sumter County looking for collaborators.

Four weeks later, The Clouds emerged!

Hyatt says that his goal was to write and record something entirely new, based on direct interaction with Sumter County musicians. Not looking for professionals, he wanted to work with people that approached music as a way of release and celebration. Hyatt reflects: “I did not want to simply document (as in Alan Lomax) or remix (as in Moby’s Play), I wanted to write new songs about living and dying and going to heaven and confronting your mortality!”

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He knew he would have no problem finding inspiration the moment he stepped inside nearby Mt. Zion Baptist church to hear the voices of “The Strugglin’ Travelers”, the congregation’s female chorus. “When someone, who is already a gifted singer, suddenly becomes filled with the spirit, it is an awesome thing to witness,” Hyatt says of his first meeting with the women.

The Clouds, though, is not your everyday gospel recording. Hyatt says: “If you listen to the lyrics they often have dual meanings…Obviously, the great message in gospel music is salvation, redemption, eternal life, etc. But at the same time, the words can be about the here and now, love and loss, victory and defeat.”

In this secular aspect of the project, Hyatt took his compositions to Kinterbish elementary school, where he co-wrote two tracks with students in the fourth through eighth grades. By introducing the concept of multi-track recording in the classroom, he enabled the students to layer their own voices into the songs. For instance, in a lyrical brainstorm, Hyatt asked each student in the sixth grade class what they would take with them to a deserted island. The resulting list of items became the inspiration for “No you can’t take them”, track #3 on the CD.

This spirit of cooperation between Hyatt and the participants guided each song on the CD. On the title track #1 “Up in the Clouds,” Hyatt wrote specifically for a group he encountered at Mt. Pilgrim primitive Baptist Church. The house group known as the B&O singers molded the rough song into a traditional gospel call and response anthem.

On track #2, Hyatt was inspired by Howard Fuller’s plaintive baritone, and the result is “Here We Come” a folksy gem both about Noah’s ark and the Sucarnoochee River’s flooding that has often caused damage to the region. Every aspect of the project aims to present a loose, freewheeling composite of the spirit of a unique place. The packaging was handmade with Amos Kennedy, a local letterpress printer and creator of York Show Print and the Ala-Miss Book Center Program of the Coleman Center. In addition to the recording, Hyatt created a unique environment for listening in The Coleman Center’s Altman Riddick Museum. Using just-processed raw cotton, he shaped the billowy white bunches into cloud formations, which floated through the exhibition space among electronics, microphones, and an antique piano. After viewers navigated through the environment they could settle into a church pew set in front of the piano where they could see on each of the exposed hammers (all 88 of them) a small portrait of each member of this mythical band, The Clouds. That’s right, eighty-eight people sing and play together on this CD, and just as their portraits danced in harmony as each chord was played on the piano, so do their lives intersect in Sumter County Alabama.

Stuart Hyatt is an artist from Indianapolis. He received his MFA in sculpture from Indiana University. He has directed a number of collaborative projects spanning a wide a range of media. He is currently seeking funding and distribution for this and other musical recordings.