Folk Art of the Twenty-First Century

by Lisa Simon

"The German origin of the work ‘folk’, or volk suggests ‘of the people’. The term "Folk Art" can be applied in the broadest sense: it’s art of or by the people."

The American Visionary Art Museum -

Folk art is a broad term that has historically been defined by its existence outside of what is generally considered "fine art." Traditionally, several key elements characterize Folk Art: hand-me-down and self-taught techniques, recycled/everyday materials, and a strong regional influence. Despite these parameters, contemporary Folk Art has proliferated to become associated with a whole family of related genres such as Naive, Primitive, Outsider (such as Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut), and Visionary Art; all of which can plausibly house Folk Art within their context. The term is enigmatic at best in that the nature of Folk Art and the Folk Artist defies the demarcation of categorical boundaries.

The question now is "What constitutes a Folk Artist?" Many "traditional" Folk Artists have become savvy to the business of selling art in a gallery setting. Meanwhile, many "professional artists" and college-educated individuals find themselves drawn into the counter-commercial influence of the Folk/Outsider ideal. How can an art form traditionally defined by its existence outside of the art market/education system live within this paradox of isolation and recognition? John Maizels defines American Folk Art as an extension of early Colonial craft traditions. "[Folk Art’s] makers are fully aware that they are producing art and they will do what they can sell." (Raw Creation, P. 114) How does this definition set Folk Art apart from other art movements? The truth is that any recognized handiwork will become a commodity and thus Folk Art’s monetary value or commercial viability must be left out of the defining equation.

In addition, the media generally associated with Folk has been rapidly expanding with the advancement of technology, communication, educational standards, and cultural exposure to other heritages, techniques, and philosophies. Computer generated imagery, video, and mechanized works have all found a home in the niche, reflecting America’s progression into a technologically adept environment. The materials at hand in everyday life have expanded to include electronic gadgetry and digital tools. The landscape itself reflects this development. Rural lifestyles are making way for a more urbanized environment. Our isolation has been replaced with an expanded worldview due to the rapid proliferation and availability of information.

This exhibit is an examination of the Folk principle in its transition. The artists all have different backgrounds, different artistic tenets, and different reasons for creating; but they all can be considered as Folk Artists to one degree or another. Minnie Adkins and Hazel Kinney create what would be considered more traditional Folk Art. They are self-taught and reflect their rural environments in their spirited creations. Scott Scarboro has studied art academically but he has also been extremely influenced by Folk’s non-academic, do-it-yourself attitude. His recycled and kinetic creations find a natural home within the Folk Art aesthetic. Harold Mitchell "the Junk Genius" does not even recognize himself as an artist, which falls squarely into the Outsider Artist territory.

Out of respect for the broad character and personalized nature of the Folk term, we have asked each participating artist to supply us with their own definition. Each person found a different way to explain the Folk Art form, but the connecting thread remains an aspect of self-instruction and a soulful dedication to expression. The truth is that Folk Art is not like a typical movement that has its own particular time frame, geographical location, and cast of characters. Folk is a world-wide phenomena of, as Andrea Rodriguez plainly puts it, making "art from the heart."

There are many artists who do not embrace the Folk term due to stereotypical connotations associated with the label. It is inaccurately assumed that Folk Artists must be rural, uneducated, and naïve. Folk Art is not a set of laws one must adhere to in order to lay claim to the name; it is a cultural phenomenon that constantly reinvents itself to reflect the society that is birthing it.

Lisa Simon, March, 2002