In her studio at Warehouse Row, I watch local artist Ashley Folkner’s paint-stained hands work tirelessly on hundreds of individually crafted paper leaves for an upcoming installation. She is mechanically folding the hand-painted paper into greeneries and wrapping the wire stems with tape. We are surrounded by paint cans, art supplies, and power tools. The windowless room smells of hot glue and sawdust. Rap music plays quietly in the background.
Nestled between mountain ranges and the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is a place of heightened imagination for nature-loving artists. The magic and mysticism of the mountains is exactly what stimulates her artwork. “The southern landscapes and color palettes have always inspired me,” Folkner says.
Her handmade and intricate displays are a spotlight for local shoppers at Anthropologie, where she works as the Display Coordinator. In addition to her full-time job, she also works as a freelance artist and designer, specializing in events, homes, and businesses. Oftentimes customers request to purchase the used displays for weddings, events, and home décor. Folkner explains that her favorite part of her job is overhearing people who are dazzled by her work.
“I especially love when kids get excited and feel like they’ve seen something really cool,” she says. “I want people to experience happiness and whimsical things that can take them out of thinking about life, and Trump, and standard kind of shit. So they can just for five seconds forget about regular life by looking at my installations…that’s enough for me.”
Folkner is one of those people who can walk into any room in the city and immediately recognize and hug at least two people. The same captivating warmth radiates from her artwork. She has the hospitality and charm of a true Southern woman, combined with her progressive views.
“I definitely sound Southern,” she explains to me as she works diligently on the paper leaves, noting that she identifies as “a woman of the world, not just the South.”
Her welcoming personality and selfless heart for others is where she exposes her characteristics as a Southern woman. She feels that she has a calling to stay in her hometown to create art for people and wants to influence people’s understanding of what art can be.
“Experimental design and art isn’t as popular in Chattanooga,” she says. “That is why I have to stay, to show people what progressive art is.”
Folkner explains that she has always received endless love and support from her family and attributes her success to them. But she laughs as she tells me that her family would comment on her art saying, “That’s beautiful! What is it?” She admits that she often felt misunderstood growing up, that people did not understand why she did not want a “normal” job. Working as an artist is more than just Folkner’s passion. She explains to me that she feels compelled internally to create things, “I have to. I feel crazy if I don’t.” She compares her drive to create to that of a runner. “Like a runner has to run, I’ve got to be a piddler.”
Folkner credits the strong women of her family for her values and work ethic. “I’ve seen the Southern women before me who didn’t get the opportunity to live out their dreams for themselves, that inspired me to do it for myself.” She was heavily influenced by her aunt who traveled the world as a Reiki master, healing people with her touch and energy. “She brought an element of spiritual nature to my work by exposing me to very different things as a child.”
Her natural creative aesthetic is organic and abstract. Her skills are diverse and spread across various mediums, she has even illustrated a children’s book and done interior design for restaurants. She uses many materials for her art and she loves incorporating antique furniture and décor into her designs, which brings an element of history and storytelling to her work. She also has the ability to work with everyday items in the creation of her displays; with straws, tree branches, and glue sticks she has creating detailed installations for Anthropologie. Most recently she has been on a balloon installation kick, creating grand displays for businesses and parties throughout the city with sculptures of colorful balloons.
The love Folkner has for Chattanooga is evident as she speaks with a sense of nostalgia of her mountain hometown. Her Southern spirit and captivating style is a glimpse of her brain transferred to canvas, paper leaves, and magical installations. The unique whimsy that her work expresses is knotted with her Southern upbringing as she feels an urge to share her abstract imagination with others.
Emily Livengood Branch is a graduate student at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pursuing a masters degree in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Professional Writing. She works in the financial industry and lives in north Chattanooga with her husband, dog, and cat.