Folk Art Collectibles
by Maxine Carter-Lome
So what exactly is “Folk Art?” The Museum of International Folk Art defines it as the “art of the everyday.” Others define it as “the art of the people” and “art made by the common people.” Although the definition of folk art is both broad and vague, we tend to know it when we see it. The primitive form of self-expression and use of unconventional materials speak to us in ways different from more traditional art forms.
The term folk art is applied in two ways: the first for items that are commercially produced but were first created by untrained and mostly unknown artists telling a cultural story and using nontraditional mediums; and the second refers to ordinary objects that were initially intended for a utilitarian purpose and have taken on a decorative aesthetic over time. To make the distinction, collectors tend to divide folk art into such categories as American, Outsider, Utilitarian, Eclectic, Pioneer, and Advertising, according to David Moore of Waterman Antiques. The antiques and collectibles market for folk art extends to such objects as paintings, sculptures, toys, dolls, baskets, weathervanes, textiles, carvings, and signs, but in no way do these catch-all terms begin to define the full array of collectible items under the folk art umbrella.
The most distinctive characteristics of folk art concern the materials and creative techniques used, including cloth, wood, paper, straw, clay, metal and other forms of natural and indigenous resources. In the case of Nantucket basket makers it was the scraps of cargo from far-flung locales, including cane from south-east Asia, that served as the raw materials for their distinctively-shaped Lightship Baskets (see article on page 26). In the case of the Inuit of the Canadian Far North, it was readily-available soapstone, a soft stone used to carve figurative works of art (see article on page 34). In both cases, regional craft and artistry by untrained artists launched a commercial market for the objects they created that continue to reach new heights at auction today.
The Folk Art Movement has also [posthumously] elevated some unlikely novice artists to the forefront of this thriving commercial market. Consider the story of Bill Traylor as told by Susan Baerwald in her article “Bill Traylor: Unfiltered” on page 31. Traylor, born into slavery in 1853, who could not read or write and had no training or exposure to art, picked up a pencil at the age of 83 and created over the next three years an incredible body of work, estimated at 1,200-1,600 pieces. Today, experts rank Traylor among the top ten most important self-taught artists, and his works, which can bring in as much as $200,000 or more at auction, have been part of exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of American Folk Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art.
Now elevated to an art form in its own right, fine examples of folk art can be found at museums across the country – from those just dedicated to folk art such as the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, to special collections amassed by such renowned art museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and special exhibitions put on by smaller, regional museums and local galleries looking to showcase local artists and celebrate the creative expressions of their regional culture.
While folk art continues to gain in popularity as the definition broadens, the craze has also led to reproductions and fraudulent representations that challenge buyers and collectors. David Moore in his article “Folk Art Frenzy” (page 28) suggests buyers beware. “The more you see and gain knowledge of true originals, the better off you will be when buying a piece for your home or collection.” Sage advice for identifying and buying folk art as well as antiques and collectibles in general.
Folk Art Collectibles