FOLK ART: What is Folk Art, what is genuine, and how is it evolving?

My day job is a great one for getting lots of thinking done. You probably know I am a quiltmaker so it will come as no surprise to know I do hours and hours of painstaking hand work which allows my mind to wander down many different pathways while I’m working.

Lately, especially since a recent request came in from a new Folk Art collector to discuss pieces available for sale in my collection, I’ve been thinking about what Folk Art is, and therefore what is in my view genuine, and where Folk Art  is going since our culture and way of life here on the East Coast is evolving and changing so quickly.

Some years ago the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia mounted a retrospective show of nearly 300 years of Folk Art in Nova Scotia, with a heavy emphasis on the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The catalogue raisonnee is a fascinating book and I treasure it and refer back to it often.

First thing we need to realize is that few people alive in those times would have viewed any of the pieces as “art” but they are avidly collected now. At that time, recreational outlets were few and far between for country people and the workdays were long – from dawn to dusk. When an outlet was needed and time could be found to do something for enjoyment’s sake, new

 

materials were neither available or affordable and so whatever could be found was used. In Maud Lewis’ case this was bits and pieces of various types of hard surfaced materials from the glass windows of her tiny house, to pieces of ‘beaverboard’ and masonite and in one case an old metal tray. Paints often were bright shiny enamels left over from other jobs around the homeplace.

In quite a few cases, Folk Art was sold at the side of the road at ridiculously low prices – in Maud’s case $5 which rose to the heady price of $10 when she was ‘discovered’. When she was younger and in better health she travelled with her fish peddler husband Everett and sold her handpainted cards to his customers for a quarter.

The Grenfell Mission on the Labrador coast in the 1920’s and 30’s developed a cottage industry of hooked mats and other local hand crafted products which were marketed in New York City. The income provided helped local residents to survive the depression.

Carvers were in a good position because smaller pieces of wood are always put away for future use – hence artists like Elmer Killen, above, and Donald Armstrong, below, didn’t have to go far to find a good piece of wood.

Folk Artists also didn’t have to go far to seek the models they used. As late as the early 1980’s oxen and horses were still to be seen plowing and haying on small farms, and I had my garden horse-hoed each year by a team of work ponies.

There are in my view three major subjects from which carvers and painters would choose: marine subjects, animals at work either on the farm, in the woods or on the road, and the downright fanciful. The first two subjects reflected the realities of the culture and the way of life all around the artist and the third reflected how his mind added spice to a subject and made it dfferent. Each carver be it of a team of horses or a team of oxen carried in their memory the exact way the harness fit together and how the animals looked in different phases of their work – this memory and awareness is close to being lost forever – there are only a few of the old farmers and woodsmen left and when they are gone there will be no more carvings of working animals.

 

In the same vein, each artist who carved or made a painting of a sailing ship or a fishing schooner knew inherently what the rigging comprised and executed it flawlessly. There will still be depictions of amaller boats in both carvings and paintings,

and gulls will always perch on buoys, like this one done by Roseville Tanner:

 

But we have to look at the direction Folk Art is taking today and while we will continue to search out the older classics, we need to look at what is being done today that doesn’t stray far from the original standards.

I look at Folk Art as simply a part of the mainstream in Fine Art: in some cases, the artist makes a distinct choice to work from a ‘naive’ viewpoint, not because of any lack of training or skill in art. In other cases, the artist is firmly grounded in the traditional rural, unschooled vision with which Folk Art started out.

I’ll leave you with a picture of a quilt of my own design which is a work in progress, and ask your opinion of whether this is true Folk Art.

Although I’m of the right generation, I do not have rural roots as most folk artists here do – I was raised in a cosmopolitan city, educated to the post graduate level, although not in art.  And textile arts, except among the quilters themselves have not been regarded as being art of any kind. However, among quilters, there is a long tradition of the ‘story’ quilt- a primive, naive and usually appliqued piece, and mine is modified to reflect my maritime heritage and the fact that prior to World War Two there was a busy coastal trade by schooner carrrying coal, potatoes, hay, livestock and lumber to a from ports on the Bay of Fundy. I view this as Folk Art – do you?

Goodbye until next week from Mich and Janet!

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