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October 2010

What is American about American Folk Art?

Written by Guest Columnist: Bonnie Grossman

For almost 40 years, I have been a dealer in American Folk Art, but for some time now I’ve been trying to figure out what’s American about this folk art. America is a nation of immigrants, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural. At what point did the artistic efforts of these immigrant settlers or their descendants, efforts clearly based in their cultural traditions, become “American.” My purpose is not to disown American art, but to understand it and become informed.

My library is full of books on American folk art —- American Folk Sculpture, The Flowering of American Folk Art, How to Know American Folk Art, and All American Folk Art, to name just a few. But they’re all about the folk art, and not what makes it American. And neither the dictionaries nor even Google could help me define “American Folk Art.”

Few art objects truly originated in our nation. Of collectible folk art items, only hunting lures (e.g. duck decoys) were here. It was the Native Americans who introduced decoys to the settlers along with corn, tobacco, canoes, and moccasins. All other craft or art, including most materials from which they were made, was imported. Quilts were found in Europe as early as the 12th century, and even earlier in Asia. It was the Asians who first conceived of layering cloth and filling it to add warmth. Ship figureheads date back to the Greeks and Romans; trade and shop signs to early England; weathervanes to 100 B.C. in Athens.

Though quilts date back to ancient Greece, China, and India, centuries before the Christian Era, they have played a prominent role in early America. Quilts were made in all regions of the New World, mostly but not exclusively by women. A quilt not only provided warmth, but it was a bit of artistry and decoration that brightened the lives of pioneer families living in a harsh and colorless world.

As these pioneers moved across the American continent, their quilts went with them. The names of the quilt patterns reflect life in the new world: the Log Cabin and its many variations, Barn Raising, Plowed Furrows, Straight Furrows, Road to California, Evening Star, and even Drunkards’ Path.

Closely related to quilting was the making of tramp art. The vocabularies of the two crafts are the same, since in both instances scrap material (in the latter case wood) is cut into geometric shapes, arranged in patterns, pieced together, and layered. The fineness of the chip carving defines one quality of the tramp art object and is comparable to the fineness of the quilting stitch. Tramp art came to us from Austria and Germany. It thrived in America between 1870 and 1930 in the largely German communities of Pennsylvania and Texas. Our word “tramp” most probably is derived from the German “trameln” — to trample. Related to, but not really tramp art, are objects referred to as Crown of Thorns, formed by interlocking wooden links. These items bear a vague resemblance to woven fishing nets and came to America from seafaring communities of Scandinavia.

Another category of American Folk Art is memory ware which has more than one explanation. Some believe that these pieces belong in the category of European Victorian-era scrap-booking. Others claim that they are simply the product of rainy day activity to busy the hands. And still others relate them to African-American tradition as grave markers for the deceased, to take or keep with them the objects of special meaning to “the after-life,” reminiscent of the tombs of the kings of ancient Egypt. There is reason to believe that all three of these theories have some measure of truth.

And there is wood-carving — truly an international craft. In addition to utilitarian items, i.e. spoons, bowls cups, etc., caged balls, puzzles, and chains were common designs. Carved and whittled chains made from a single piece of wood originated in both Europe and Africa. Swedish and Welsh young men carved “love spoons”...two spoons linked by chain and often incorpo-rating a caged ball. The Welsh and Chinese carved fans, and interlocking wooden puzzles had their origins in ancient China.

Bottle whimseys were an adjunct of whimsey carving. Here the carved item was reassembled painstakingly inside a glass bottle. Similar in concept to the ship-in-a-bottle, these carefully constructed whimseys required enormous patience and a very steady hand. These whimseys are also found in Europe.

And finally, canes and walking sticks. Their history goes back many centuries, but as a dealer in American Folk Art, I have clients who ask me for American sticks. The best I can do is to look for the signs and symbols that represent America — the snakes and alligators from the swamps of the South, the eagles and shields of colonial American, and other historical embellishments.

So here we are, descendants of the myriad of cultures joined together to form an exciting and vibrant well of creativity. Quilting, wood-carving, tramp art, canes, and whimseys did not originate in America, but with the passage of time and the adaptation and incorporation ­of New World images, became American. I guess that I will concede that whatever the root, the art produced in the United States has evolved into American Folk Art.

I’d welcome your comments.

About Bonnie Grossman
In addition to founding The Ames Gallery, Bonnie Grossman has served on museum boards and advisory committees, curated public art exhibitions, and lectured widely. She has been executive producer or co-director/ producer of nine television programs on California artists and has served as consultant for a TV series on antiques and collectibles. Bonnie Grossman has written for and been interviewed in numerous publications.

Bonnie first posed the question about American folk art to us earlier this year. We found it interesting to contemplate the origins of American folk art and we are grateful that Bonnie has allowed us to reprint her article in full.

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