Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Folk Art: Expressing Southern Culture

Have you seen a sculpture made out of discarded metal pieces or an animal carved from log pieces with a chainsaw and wondered who created it? The answer is probably a folk artist who may have never intended for it to be considered art. Folk art, which has a rich tradition in the American South, is art by the common people of a region that reflects the lives and expresses their hopes and dreams.

Functional and Decorative Art

Unlike fine art that is purely aesthetic and created by professional artists, folk art is typically functional and decorative and is produced by laborers and craftspeople. As such, cloth, cardboard, wood, paper, clay, and metal are commonly used, and some media are substituted for others when they are not immediately available.

Folk artists may spend their lives doing something else, although several learn skills through apprenticeships. Many are self-taught and develop their work in isolation or in small communities. The creations represent art forms of ethnic, religious, and other community groups who identify with each other and share traditions. For example, the Southern Highland Craft Guild, chartered in 1930, represents about 1,000 craftspeople in nine southeastern U.S. states.

The practical craftsmanship and decorative talent are quite apparent when examining quilts, pottery, and carved figures. However, folk art also includes expressive, unconventional, and nonconforming works by artists who draw on their cultures and experiences to create objects as whimsical as chainsaw animals and hubcap creations.

Folk art on display at the Fearrington Folk Art Show

A recent trend is the growing interest in folk arts by African Americans such as decorated furniture, architectural pieces, and utilitarian objects. When the High Museum in Atlanta held an exhibition of folk art, pieces by African-Americans (some enslaved before Emancipation) included a snake quilt, a decorated dresser cabinet (made from the recycled wood of fruit crates and cigar boxes), and a storage pottery jar engraved with a poem.

With Sam "The Dot Man" McMillan of Winston-Salem, NC,
who creates decorated furniture, quilts, clothing and
pottery as well as paintings

Folk Art in the South

The South is celebrated for its folk art shows, festivals, galleries, parades, and tours. Even the Folk Art Society of America, which focuses on folk art worldwide, has Southern roots and is still based in Richmond, Va.
  • The world’s largest folk art show and sale is in the South. Folk Fest is held each August in Atlanta, features more than 100 galleries and dealers, and attracts more than 12,000 guests. “Self-taught art is the most important visual culture America has ever produced,” according to Steve Slotin, who is the Folk Fest promoter.
  • A show that demonstrates the extensive variety of media that folk artists use is the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, which offers works of clay, fiber, glass, leather, metal, mixed media, natural materials, paper, wood and jewelry by more than 200 craftspeople. Sponsored by the Southern Highland Guild, the fair is held four days each July and October in Asheville, N.C.
  • The major festival for folk art is in Alabama. Known as the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, it is held annually in October and includes demonstrations of traditional skills such as blacksmithing and quilting and the works of more than 250 artists.
  • Major galleries, all in the South, that focus on folk art include Funky Chicken Art Project (housed in an old chicken house); in North Georgia; Red Piano Too Gallery (located in the first S.C. store to pay people of color with money rather than barter for goods) in St. Helena Island; Rosehips Folk Art Gallery in Cleveland, Georgia (in the center of that state’s pottery tradition); Yard Dog Folk Art (that features artists from the Gulf region) in Austin, Texas. In addition, the Kentucky Folk Art Center, a museum at Morehead State University, has a permanent collection of nearly 1,400 pieces of “self-taught art.” The Southern Folk Art magazine maintains a list of folk art galleries
Fork art often includes decorated cars
  • The most notorious folk art parade is held in Houston, Texas, a city also known for conducting folk art tours among its historical excursions. More than 200 cars decorated by folk artists join in the parade that is watched by almost 250,000 people.

Displays by Artists Themselves

Some of the best displays of folk art are on the properties owned of the artists themselves. For example, for years Vollis Simpson made and displayed whirlagigs – pinwheels, propellers, and wind-driven sculptures built with random parts that spin in different directions – in a field next to his repair shop in Lucama, N.C. Because of the widespread recognition that he received, the North Carolina Arts Council created a two-acre park in nearby Wilson, N.C., to preserve and display more than 30 of his whirlagigs. The city even now conducts an annual whirlagig festival each November.

One of my favorite folk artists is Clyde Jones of Bynum, N.C., who uses a chainsaw to carve “critters” out of old logs and stumps. A former mill worker, Jones made critters for 30 years. They are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and around the world. None of his critters are available for sale except those that he donates for charity auctions. They are truly priceless. When my class visited Jones at his home, the students were enchanted by the zoo of brightly painted critters that surrounded his house.

Students on field trip to Jones' home
Student "riding" a critter

With Clyde Jones, renowned folk artist
I was delighted to meet Jones again near Pittsboro, N.C., at the Fearrington Folk Art Show, which is held annually in February and exhibits works by 35 folk artists. Jones represents the spirit of a true folk artist. No matter how often someone raises eyebrows when seeing his critters for the first time without understanding his fame, the renowned chainsaw artist remains confident that his work is art that has stood the test of time.

Visiting a folk art show, talking to an artist, and seeing a festival are important ways to understand more about a region. Seeing how everyday people have expressed their lives and hopes through their folk art gives more insights into a culture, particularly in the American South.