The American Folk Art Tradition Continues – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2007
By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
Clay, usually dug locally by the potter, ground and recycled glass, tin from used food containers or hauled off of road sides, out of junk yards and car grave yards, wood left over from patching and repairing houses and chairs, are just some of the many types of items recycled and utilized in folk art. Any form of decorative self expression by a self-taught craftsperson or artist is folk art; it runs the gamut from good to bad to wonderful to downright awful. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, folk art means many different things to as many people. Call it what you may, but consider and examine it, some of it is dynamite.
There is a definite difference between culture and enjoyment. You might not enjoy an item but being cultured dictates you explore it and decide why you like it or dislike it. Many feel because they do not recognize a name the value of the art is minimal, just as if they do recognize a name it has considerable value. Price and resale value often have little to do with the quality of art. Much of what has been created as folk art was inspired by a need and therefore not signed.
Thirty years ago, one could buy a Lanier Meaders (1917-1998) face jug for $25-35. Today, Lanier Meaders face jugs can sell in the multi-thousands. The Meaders family is perhaps the premier family of pottery in this country, with multi generations working in the same tradition. Edward Meaders, brother of Lanier, is famous for his roosters. He digs his own clay, grinds his own glazes, cuts his own wood and stokes his own kiln. The beauty of these hand-done creations is that no two are exactly alike. The essence and eccentricity, the craft and the concept are kneaded into each piece.
Many of the great names of the past twenty-five years are either advanced in age or have passed on. As their work was limited to begin with, they maintain a status that can never come with mass production or automation. Fortunately, there are many younger potters working today, some of whom are the next generations of potting families.
One of the exciting features of collecting folk art in any genre is the fact that so many women have been leading lights in the field and were able to use folk art as a form of expression and activism. Grandma Moses painted and Marie Rogers transformed clay into wonderful grotesque faces. The first piece of folk art I ever purchased was a Marie Rogers jug 33 years ago and I still avidly seek out her work. She is in her eighties but her work still has a vibrancy and youth to it. Marie’s miniatures are some of her scarcest works which are much more difficult to create than larger pieces.
Vicki Miller’s experiments with non-traditional forms as well as color glazes have inspired many a man to follow suit and are refreshingly cutting edge. Where devil jugs, Uncle Sam Figures, Santa Clause and pumpkin people were seldom, if ever, seen, Vicki and former husband, Claude Miller of Ram Pottery, and their son Ryan, often stray far away from the traditional face jugs doing figures that are requested by their customers. Hence they have taken many an exciting and unusual detour.
“Southern Potters” (as they are referred to) do not necessarily have to derive from the south. In other words you do not have to be living in the south to do this type of pottery. Almost all of the face jugs, however, are from the south.
Comparing some of the New York state pots and jugs with those from Vermont and Massachusetts, one can see the similarities, especially in shapes. One can see similarities with those done in the south and even the west. Many early pieces were made by slaves for usage on the plantation and for sale. During the Revolutionary era, there were even a few slaves working in Boston and Rhode Island. These pieces are unidentifiable as they were not signed and made for domestic use by the families they were owned by.
The names of potters: Billy Ray Hussey, Bobby Ferguson, Mark Hewett, Marie Rogers, Claude Miller, Cleaver Meaders, etc. B.B. Craig, Michael & Melvin Crocker, Grace Nell Hewell are only a few of the potters that have influenced pottery and whose folk art creations have become incorporated into many museums, as well as the collections of investors and collectors who have an affinity for this totally hand created art. Owning a slave-created jug or pot is a seldom realized dream of most collectors, as the early historically significant pots are rare indeed. Look for unmarked early utilitarian clay plates and pots as these could very well have been slave manufactured. The non-traditional items with a message to convey such as Adam & Eve, Medusa, Angels, etc., are an incredible accent to a collection.
There are many claims for how and why the face jugs began, and some are rather interesting. Aside from utilitarian usage, the jugs were often used for moonshine or hard liquor – hence the face. The grotesque faces on many of the jugs was to scare away the evil spirits. Another claim was that the jug was placed on the grave. If the jug stayed intact for a year after the burial, the deceased’s mate was being given a blessing to remarry. They also kept away evil spirits and wild critters. Regardless of the purpose, the jugs and pots created are all individualistic and have great charm, replete with self-expression.
Folk art is not just pottery, nor is it just from the south. Anyone who has seen the incredible Noah’s Arks of Tubby Brown knows he had religious as well as outspoken whimsy in many of his creations. His Devil Telemarketer figures were one way of making a social protest as wells as a religious statement. He obviously was plagued by the telemarketers who would break up his work days and invade his home and privacy.
Often, an artist is so well known for his creations in a particular genre or motif people forget about the other things they created; or they are so rare that few know about them. Tubby Brown was very comfortable working in both wood and metal and often combined multiple mediums to create his works. His Noah’s arks were often a combination of the ark in wood and the animals in metal. His most impressive piece of art took him six months to carve. It is an 84-inch-tall skeleton in a coffin with a glass front and is paint decorated. The skeleton is jointed and substantial. When this item came up for sale at auction, museums and institutions fought for the piece. It is a masterpiece of wood carver’s art and the symbolic paintings are wistful and whimsical. Brown’s Santa figures and alligators may be the favorites of many, but the skeleton will remain his greatest piece and Noah’s ark his most prolific and best known motif.
John Moreno, a New Hampshire artist and former auctioneer and dealer, painted many signs and figures on wood. The Harry Potter piece (illustrated above) was painted on old organ pipes of graduating sizes. Utilizing the shape and size each one could be viewed individually, but viewed together there is a very Edward Gorey splashed with color harmony to the piece.
Folk art has not only become fashionable, but it has become international with its influence, flavor and stylization moving from country to country. Religious and political statements have never been confined to just great artists like Diego Rivera, but have seeped and saturated into the thinking and the execution of work of artists from all walks of life and economic strata.
Artists very often represent the social history of an area, making a statement or carrying on a tradition. Earlier mythological figures are coming back into style with tree faces (the Green Man), elves, gnomes and fairies regaining the popularity that they enjoyed in Art Nouveau and Art Deco days. Folk artists are broadening their horizons and are experimenting with materials they would probably not have bothered with a century ago. Because of this, there are some pretty wild and wonderful creations one can grace ones home with. Thankfully institutes, museums, antique shops and galleries are beginning to feature items of merit. Arts councils and humanities grants are giving some of these artists a chance to be seen. Tamarack, which is funded by the state of West Virginia, is a juried outlet for the artisans of the mountain state. Other states have followed suit and it is rather exciting to be able to walk into a museum type building, meander among the blown glass, burl bowls, sculptures, and pottery and know you can purchase reasonably priced, top quality folk art. Contemporary folk art can be placed with fine art, antiques and older folk art and hold its own. As Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good it is good; or paraphrased if it looks good it is good.
Beginning collectors or those who are unsure of themselves should join some of the folk art societies, spend some time in museums, especially modern and folk art museums, and frequent the shops, galleries auctions and shows. If there are local folk artists, haunt their workshops and patronize them as this is a wonderful way to find treasures.