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Folk Art & The Self-Taught Artist

Updated on August 2, 2014
drmiddlebrook profile image

Dr. Middlebrook is a self-publishing expert, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. en: Watercolor by unidentified artist. Original painting in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, en: Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.
The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. en: Watercolor by unidentified artist. Original painting in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, en: Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. | Source
Man on a Hog, Clark Coe (1847-1919), Killingworth, Connecticut, circa 1890. Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA.
Man on a Hog, Clark Coe (1847-1919), Killingworth, Connecticut, circa 1890. Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA. | Source

What is Folk Art?

Contemporary definitions of folk-art refer to it as that which is produced by people who taught themselves to create art, instead of art produced by those who have been professionally trained as artists. Historical or traditional definitions of folk art have also viewed it as a style of art created by people from an “indigenous” or a native culture (looking at such things as pottery, utensils, and "dawn-of-time" cave paintings and drawings).

As a creative writer, educator, and someone with a great interest in history and in lifelong learning, folk art captures my attention on many levels. Whether it is being considered from the perspective of the artist being self-taught or from the standpoint of seeing it as the work of indigenous/native cultures, it is an expression of the diversity of civilization's groups and subgroups. At the same time, it includes demonstrations of our shared cultural identity as it documents the heart and soul of community and culture. Today, much of what is viewed as folk art is represented by handmade creations embodying a simple, straightforward, “naïve” and/or “unapologetic” style or presentation. In other words—and in many ways, folk art is what it is. And that's why I love it so much.

"Mrs. Agnes Brown," is one doll who loves to celebrate freedom! Be sure to read more, below, about the creator of this beauty, Sybil Butler Reddick.
"Mrs. Agnes Brown," is one doll who loves to celebrate freedom! Be sure to read more, below, about the creator of this beauty, Sybil Butler Reddick. | Source
Pottery made from fabric? Yes! Be sure to read the Hub "Arts, Crafts, and Stunning Pottery Made from Fabric," part of this series.
Pottery made from fabric? Yes! Be sure to read the Hub "Arts, Crafts, and Stunning Pottery Made from Fabric," part of this series. | Source

In many ways, folk art can be thought of as the opposite of fine art. While fine art can employ materials that are imported (be it paint, cloth, clay, rock/stone, or something else), the folk artist uses materials that are readily and easily available to him or her. And, although folk art may be admired by many, usually, the artist will not want to see it mass produced. Why? Because once an item of art becomes mass produced, it loses its uniqueness. It may still be "folksy," aesthetically, but it loses a lot of its "one-of-a-kind" mystique when it can be seen anywhere and everywhere.

Folk art can be that which is made for a particular purpose—such as a water-carrying jug decorated with images meaningful to the artist, or it can be a work of art made strictly for the sake of beauty, for its aesthetic appeal and value.The quality of creations produced by folk artists can range from the very simplistic and crudely fashioned items, to very well-made, detailed items. It is important, however, that the artist uses media (meaning what a creation is made of) that's readily and easily available.

"Interior of John Leavitt's Tavern," watercolor, ink and pencil on paper, by artist Joseph Warren Leavitt (1804–1833). Shows inside of tavern of  artist's father, John Leavitt, in Chichester, New Hampshire.
"Interior of John Leavitt's Tavern," watercolor, ink and pencil on paper, by artist Joseph Warren Leavitt (1804–1833). Shows inside of tavern of artist's father, John Leavitt, in Chichester, New Hampshire. | Source

Sybil Reddick, Self-Taught Artist

If you like this article, be sure to read "Creating Art From the Heart: Doll-Making and Painting." This Hub features the work of a talented self-taught artist, Sybil Reddick, who makes beautiful dolls and paints amazing pictures.

Who is The Folk Artist?

While folk artists are skilled artisans, in general, folk art is not concerned with the “qualities,” “influences,” or the “requirements” of fine art. Instead, it is concerned with capturing “directness” from its imaginative naturalness, as well as through its innate simplicity. Folk art is artistic creativity performed by people who are self-taught, or by those who learned their skill from having it taught or handed down to them, such as from family members. That means it lovingly embodies the skill, imagination, memories, stories, and creativity of the artist in a way that is simply unique.

Sherrill Andrea, Self-Taught Artist

Be sure to read my article on Sherrill and her art, titled: "Arts, Crafts & Stunning Pottery Made Using Fabric." You'll get to see amazingly creative works of art produced by a talented self-taught artist who not only makes all kinds of things, she teaches others how to make things too!

Those who study folk art often look for primitive examples of it in the discoveries of archaeologists—such as pottery, kitchen utensils, or clothing that were fashioned or handmade by people of ancient civilizations. These types of “artifacts” provide a lot of useful information about how people lived, what things they created, what they believed, what they valued, and what was used in the everyday lives of those within civilizations and cultures that no longer exist. Contemporary folk art provides evidence of the richness of modern cultures, and every item has a story of its own to tell that is necessarily linked with that of its creator.

The American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, New York, NY.
The American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, New York, NY. | Source
Rooster weathervanes, late 19th - early 20th century, artists unknown. Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA.
Rooster weathervanes, late 19th - early 20th century, artists unknown. Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA. | Source

Artistic Creations That Are One-of-a-Kind

Much of what we see as “art” in the world today is items that have been mass-produced, to the nth degree, to help companies achieve sales goals. For example, few people have been blessed to be able to actually see Leonardo da Vinci’s original painting of the Mona Lisa, which is on permanent display in a bullet-proof glass case at the Louvre museum in Paris. But most of us have seen copies of the painting because it has been cheaply mass produced ad infinitum, and is an image that appears on all kinds of things, from clothing, to umbrellas, to bath towels, and more.

While it is great that we can all enjoy fine art without having to travel to France, still, there is something to be said for art that is not mass produced, as well as that which is not produced solely for the purpose of being sold to the highest bidder.

By no means am I putting down the mass production of original works of fine or even folk art, nor am I condemning mass produced art of any kind. However, I am using the fact that a lot of the art we purchase today is in fact mass produced to emphasize the idea that not being mass produced is one thing that makes folk art even more unique and special.

Joe Minter, a carpenter (b. 1935), explains that he had a revelation from God in 1989. He felt led to construct a monument to African American history rendered, in his side yard, in found objects and house paint.
Joe Minter, a carpenter (b. 1935), explains that he had a revelation from God in 1989. He felt led to construct a monument to African American history rendered, in his side yard, in found objects and house paint. | Source
Stag at Echo Rock, oil painting on canvas, late 19th century, artist unknown. Folk art in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA.
Stag at Echo Rock, oil painting on canvas, late 19th century, artist unknown. Folk art in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA. | Source

Even if the folk artist, or the self-taught artist, decides to create more than one occurrence of a particular item, because each item is handmade by the original artist, each will still be one-of-a-kind. There will necessarily be slight variations in what is produced, and it will be enough to provide evidence that there will never be another of that particular creation. For all intents and purposes, no creation will ever be “identical” to the original.

Folk art can be expressed in a variety of ways, and it can include handmade creations that can be manifested and/or described as innocent, raw, unsophisticated, unpretentious, honest, transparent, or even “childlike.” The variety of ways folk art can be expressed is a testament to its down-to-earth, homespun approach. It encompasses artistic creations that are unique because they possess a refreshing type of innocence. They convey special meaning to the artist and/or to those who can recognize and appreciate the beauty, wonder, worth, quality, and value of the creation.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961), was known as “Grandma Moses.” She was in her late 70's when she began her career as a folk artist. In 1953, her picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961), was known as “Grandma Moses.” She was in her late 70's when she began her career as a folk artist. In 1953, her picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine. | Source

A Closer Look at Self-Taught Artists

The excerpt below (in quotations) is from an article by Robert Bishop that was published in The Houghton Mifflin Companion to U.S. History: Folk Art (found online at http://www.answers.com/topic/folk-art). In the article, Bishop offers a description of “memory painting,” something I see as a valid and creative expression of folk art:

“Generally older, self-taught artists record scenes from their early life and in the process document a way of life that was rural, less complex, and free from the changes wrought by improved communications and transportation in America during the twentieth century. Their idyllic renderings have immense popular appeal. Probably the best known of these twentieth-century artists are Grandma Moses, Mattie Lou O'Kelley, and Kathy Jakobsen.”

"The Quilting Bee," (1940-1950) by Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses).
"The Quilting Bee," (1940-1950) by Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses). | Source
"Morning Day on the Farm," by Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses).
"Morning Day on the Farm," by Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses). | Source

That is not to say that one must be “older” or that one must paint pictures in order to be a folk artist. In further discussion of categories of contemporary folk artists, the same article described folk artists as representing “an individual vision that reflects the artist's concern with oneself, one's place in society, and one's highly personal point of view.” That is a description that can include self-taught artists of all ages and cultures, one reflecting the expansive variety of what can be seen as folk art.

The self-taught artist works tirelessly, lovingly, and sometimes, painstakingly, always giving away little pieces of themselves to their art. The self-taught artist is hungry for knowledge. They have a need to express, but also a need to learn, a thirst to know. Yes, he or she can be impressed and perhaps in some ways even influenced by fine art masters and their masterpieces. But still, it is the ultimate goal and determination of the true folk artist to create art from the inside-out, and not from the outside-in. Connecting personal insight with emotion, they are seeking honesty of expression and simplicity of presentation as they tell their own stories and the stories of their culture and community—through art.

This is Book Two in my "Tales from the Quarters" collection (more at www.mybeaxrivers.com).
This is Book Two in my "Tales from the Quarters" collection (more at www.mybeaxrivers.com). | Source

Hub Author's Note ...

I am someone who creates what I see as "works of art" through the writing of my own brand of fiction novels. It is my hope that my approach (which I call "ro-mystery--a blend of romance, mystery, and history) in creating my stories is as “novel,” “honest,” and “straightforward,” in presentation, as is the spirit of the kind of “folk art” I love. Even though I don't consider myself to be a “folk artist,” as both a writer and a graphic artist, I hope my work demonstrates my appreciation of the kind of novelty and honesty that this type of art embodies.

For me, there's just something blessed, something that is spiritually uplifting and rewarding about putting in the time and effort it takes to teach yourself how to do something, and then to do your best at it. To work tirelessly and endlessly, constantly learning and being amazed by what you're learning while also loving every minute of what you're doing. To know you're trying to create something that will have lasting value, not just for you, but for others as well.

When it comes to writing fiction (my greatest love!), I am self-taught (even though I am an educated, trained, and experienced reporter, writer, editor, graphic artist, and publisher of news and non-fiction). It is my hope that the "folk" my readers meet when devouring one of my novels will give them as much joy and inspiration as they provide for me as I'm creating my "art."

© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

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    • drmiddlebrook profile image
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      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you, Rebecca Furtado, for your visit and comment. I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that "folk art seems to be positive representations of things." Very well stated, because I know that honesty--in terms of the way the artist views things--is very important to those creating folk art. And honesty is always a positive thing. Thanks again.

    • Rebecca Furtado profile image

      Rebecca Furtado 3 years ago from Anderson, Indiana

      This is a beautiful piece. The pieces shown have a cheerful appeal. Folk art seems to be positive representations of things.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks Dbro, for the visit and for commenting. I'm honored to hear from a "fine arts" pro who appreciates "the freshness and 'innocence' of folk art." And you are so right, training/education can and sometimes does get in the way, and it can cause us to lose touch with our "sense of wonder" about the real things of beauty that truly matter. Thanks for contributing sentiments stating that so well!

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Fabulous article, drmiddlebrook! As a "fine" artist, I can appreciate the freshness and "innocence" of folk art. I try to retain my sense of wonder when I paint and not to let my training get in the way of my delight in the beauty I try to portray in my work.

      Thanks for this interesting peek into the vision and motivation behind these artistic treasures!

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
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      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much pstraubie48 for your visit and for your "humble opinion." I agree with you that "real art comes from within...that real art is self taught." While education and training can help you by offering/providing knowledge of techniques and tools, what you do with those tools and techniques, I believe, comes from inside yourself, a gift from God. I think people can be taught how to create art, but I think the desire to create it, and the inspiration to work on it until it's something "greater" than you, must be in you. And that's what "real art" is all about. And thanks for sending the Angels too.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Hi Thanks for sharing this peek at self taught folk artists.

      I think really and truly in my most humble opinion that real art comes from within...that real art is self taught.

      Am I way out in left field??

      Could be but I believe it is a gift that cannot really be learned like other things.

      have a lovely day.

      Angels are on the way this morning ps

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much for reading, and for sharing Jackie Lynnley. I think living in "the beautiful South," somehow, helps me to appreciate the "folksiness" of folk art. Glad to know you appreciate it too!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      This is great. I use to collect and sell Folk Art in my book shop. It went as fast as I put any out. I rarely see any, anymore. Fun to read and look at! ^