​A treasure hunt for undiscovered American artists

Calling all unknown artists! A team of talent scouts has been scouring the country in search of unrecognized talent, and our Anna Werner has gone along:

It's an unusual art hunt -- one that launched two men on a nine-month road trip across America.

Museum president Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood, are emissaries from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., a museum founded by Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress.

Their mission: To find undiscovered artists across the country, to showcase in a one-of-a-kind, contemporary art show in America's heartland.

The idea, said Bacigalupi, was that "wherever you come from, wherever you live, there might be a great genius artist working right next door, and if you haven't paid attention to that, it's worth doing."

Together the pair have visited nearly 1,000 studios in 44 states, logging over 100,000 miles along the way, often to places GPS couldn't find, and curators never visit.

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"Zenith" by A. Mary Kay.
A. Mary Kay/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Everything from a goat farm in Florida, to an abandoned church in Texas, to a converted school in rural Kansas.

Werner asked, "Why was this so compelling to you, the idea that you would get to travel, oh, 50,000 miles and go into basements and garages, out in farm fields?"

"I have to tell you, I didn't quite know about the basements and garages and farm fields part," Alligood said. "But the scope of the project was such that I knew I couldn't turn it down."

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Sheila Gallagher's "Black Cow," smoke on canvas.
Sheila Gallagher/Dodge Gallery

With each visit, the curators found artists working in new and imaginative ways -- drawing animals with smoke . . . weaving with string . . . and painting with plastic.

"You would never guess from across the room that what you're looking at is plastic recyclables grilled in the back ally of a Boston neighborhood," said Alligood. "Plastic trash transformed at the hands of an artist."

In Pittsburgh, they met Vanessa German, who combines a passion for helping her own troubled neighborhood with her work.

"She works in a very difficult neighborhood of Pittsburgh call Homewood," said Bacigalupi. "Her children were murdered and all kinds of street crime happened. And she makes these figures, and she imbues them with the power to protect those people."

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"White Naptha Soap, or Contemporary Lessons in Shapeshifing" by Vanessa German
Vanessa German/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

An artist who's an environmentalist uses trash from the ocean to re-create a famous work by Piet Mondrian.

Limewood -- used for centuries for elaborate carvings in European churches -- is used to form modern-day objects: a cell phone . . . a watch . . . car keys.

And a wall-size painting bursts with the colors of the natural world. It's the work of A. Mary Kay, who the curators found painting in the gymnasium of a converted school in Lindsborg, Kan., that also serves as her home.

Kay draws her inspiration from the land -- the flora and fauna found on the prairie around her.

Werner asked what her reaction was when the Crystal Bridges curators called: "I was thrilled. I mean, I was very surprised, I was delighted, was very nervous! It's just very moving to have somebody come into the studio and really see your work."

On the same trip, the team visited Wichita, Kan., to see the work of artist Randy Regier.