What is folk art?

Artists of museum masterpieces created for the ages. Whether it is Michaelangelo’s marble David, paintings by da Vinci, Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog, or intricate Faberge eggs for a tsar, the beauty and power behind these works were part and parcel of creating objects that would last for the ages.

In the world of folk art, however, individuals painted, whittled or carved, drew, quilted, framed or otherwise created distinctive artistic expressions on a whim. It was simply an inspiration and it was immediate. At times, folk art made a cultural statement about what it meant to be within a community, to hold certain beliefs, to be genuine. It was only recognized as art later on.

Folk art is definitely the most inclusive of the visual arts. Unlike the trained artists behind museum masterpieces, who followed guidelines of proportion, light, space, continuity and perspective, folk artists required no particular knowledge or training. Whittling a doll for your daughter from a tree branch, for example, was a personal expression to satisfy the child’s wish – a convenient alternative if a person couldn’t afford a store-bought one. Yet, the doll was just as loved and became, by accident, just as artistically and aesthetically pleasing as any museum-worthy creation.

Embroidered flowers and animals including a lion, chickens and dogs, each block-stitched with initials of the maker, wool embroidery on wool and printed cotton; winner at the Rockingham County Fair [Virginia]. Circa 1900. Sold for $400. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Brunk Auctions

There are two distinct categories of folk art: antique and contemporary. Both are comprised of materials such as wood, clay, metal, stone, paper, cloth and whatever else might be available. Many folk art items are utilitarian in nature, such as doorstops, picture frames, business signage, or even weathervanes. They were everyday items not generally considered to be “art” at the time of their creation. The differences one may note among folk art items in general are usually connected to the time periods during which they were created.

Antique Folk Art

Early American folk art came about as the result of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. As urban and industrial areas grew, people developed an interest in the more rural and agrarian traditions, including primitive or “naïve” artifacts.

A circa-1860s hand-carved walnut mirror with eagle and patriotic motif throughout is an example of folk art that sold for $2,800. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and New Orleans Auction Galleries

These artifacts were made by itinerant craftsman, which “…led to a consideration of ‘folk art’ as anything non-elitist, primitive or homemade – art that preserved some kind of cultural heritage,” says an entry in the Art Encyclopedia. They were also made in relatively small batches, not in large commercialized lots. For example, a circa-1860s walnut mirror frame featuring a patriotic motif, hand-carved around the Civil War period, was probably a response to the war in general. It sold at auction for $2,800.

All manner of “…weathervanes, old store signs and carved figures, itinerant portraits, carousel horses, fire buckets, painted game boards, cast-iron doorstops and many other similar lines of highly collectible ‘whimsical’ antiques…” are the general categories of folk art, says Wikipedia.

Antique dealers will tell you, however, that what collectors of vintage folk art look for is the subject matter – upbeat themes such as a barber shop or fruit vendor are more desirable than funerals or sawmills, for example). Color, condition, and size are all factors as well. However, buying folk art is quite subjective. What appeals to you is the only real criterion.

An example of a simple folk art painting with hand-carved frame that sold for $50. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and Roland New York.

Contemporary Folk Art

After the introduction of Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, mechanization and assembly lines became the business model that persisted through most of the 20th century. Folk art itself became less about the creation of individualized utilitarian artifacts and more focused on handmade but more consistent products intended for resale as opposed to items created for personal expression.

Whether for resale or not, contemporary folk art still follows the basic principle of what folk art is, mainly that it be something that appeals to the collector, not necessarily a discipline of the fine arts. Certainly local customs, heritage and values still play a part in its creation, but the final product is intended more for display or resale than its earlier utilitarian use.

Contemporary folk art includes some handmade and hand-painted artworks, such as duck decoys, hand-stitched quilts, beadwork, jewelry, baskets, cutlery, picture frames, paintings, game boards, bird cages, tribal masks, totem poles, and smaller wooden crafts. They are distinguished by their strikingly bold colors, unique designs and personal style of craftsmanship.

Chip-carved tramp art cigar box with round decorations. Sold for $950. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Slotin Folk Art

Tramp art:

Just a word about tramp art and its meaning… At one time, homeless or itinerant people once were described as “hobos” or “tramps,” especially during the period of the Great Depression. They were of all ages, sometimes family men who wandered the country looking for any kind of work. Along the way, they were known to take pocketknives to pieces of available wood – even cigar boxes – and fashion picture frames, canes, furniture, fanciful sculpture and other objects. Many even filed down general coinage and carved elaborate images in them as well.

Curiously, tramp art is a more modern term for any type of hand-carved item that seems within the genre of “tramp art,” even if made by artisans at home. The period of “tramps” lasted only from about 1870 to 1940 or so, yet this subset is still considered within the folk art tradition even in the contemporary era.

In summary:

Folk art is an all-inclusive term that identifies visual arts that are created outside the traditions of fine art. When you hear of tramp art, naïve art and even outsider art, you are essentially within the folk art community.

So, folk art is local. It is expressive, quite colorful, without pretense and yet still reflects how we feel about the world around us. We might say that folk art is us.