Junk and Genius: A Look at Folk Art

If you’re familiar with the easyFrame service then by now you’ll know that we have a passion for anything art related. While there’s no denying that we get excited about the prospect of picking out the perfect picture frame for a lovely drawing or print, we’re also big fans of art that breaks the rules – art, in other words, that doesn’t fit easily into a frame.

This week, we’ve been immersing ourselves in the world of folk art, a tradition which isn’t as easily pinned down and defined as something like Impressionism or Cubism, but which is notable for the way it evokes the same themes of community, spirituality, creativity, and day-to-day life – whether it was created in the Arctic or Central Africa. Folk art, in essence, is the art of the everyday; it is art which expresses truths about ordinary people and their communities.

Unlike more established and critically championed forms of fine art, folk painting, drawing and sculpture is about groups of people and not the individual expression of one artist. As such, it is a hugely significant part of human history on Earth, a crucial record of the way we have lived together for the past several thousand years.

If you’re new to the concept of folk art, read on. We’ve written a guide to some of the most interesting folk art that’s ever been created…

Alfred Wallis, the Cornish Fisherman

Back in 2014, the Tate Britain ran an exhibition of British Folk Art. Pulling together a collection of 200 paintings, sculptures, textiles and household items, they displayed the best of the UK’s folk art scene from the past few centuries.

Houses at St Ives, Cornwall c.1928-42 by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942

Houses at St Ives, Cornwall c.1928-42 Alfred Wallis 1855-1942 Presented by Ben Nicholson 1959 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00239

Amongst the artists represented was Alfred Wallis, a self-taught painter who came to be celebrated for his “naïve art”, painting seascapes largely from memory and eschewing perspective in his depictions of the St Ives area (as seen in “Houses at St Ives, Cornwall”). Though Wallis was to some extent welcomed into the established art scene by painters such as Ben Nicholson, he has maintained his reputation as primarily a Cornish folk artist.

What ultimately makes Wallis a folk artist is the fact that his painting was born out of a desire to depict his home and community – and not a desire to make artistic or political statements. His use of “found” materials such as cardboard from packing boxes (used as his canvases) is also relevant; folk artists tend to use the materials that are available to them and which have a clear tie to the place in which the art is being created.

By its very essence, of course, folk art is not about the individual but about the community – which is why the artists behind so much of our most beloved folk artworks remain unidentified.


"S.H." Crazy Quilt

“S.H.” Crazy Quilt

One of the most popular media associated with folk art is textiles – and, more specifically, quilting. Take a look at the American Folk Art Museum’s website and you’ll find a whole section dedicated to quilts, many of which cannot be attributed to anyone due to their provenance remaining unknown. This “Crazy Quilt”, for instance, is only marked with the artist’s initials (“S.H.”) – although we do know that it dates back to the late 19th century, and that it was created using silk embroidery, ink and paint. Most interesting is the fact that this quilt was created using reproductions of images found in magazines and store brochures from that era, a feature which marks it out as a true piece of community art.

Quilting has long been a feature of traditional life in smaller communities, due to its dual functionality. Quilts serve the primary purpose of keeping people warm on cold nights, but they are also an opportunity for a skilled embroiderer to show off their talents. Crucially, quilting also offers the opportunity to tell a story through images, which can be an immensely powerful tool in the hands of the marginalised; Harriet Powers was an African-American slave and folk artist who famously recorded local legends and stories on her quilts. Today, her work can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Objects in the Home

As with quilts, many of our most treasured folk art objects are ones which could serve a dual purpose for their makers. This decorated blanket chest would have provided a useful storage space, but is also a charming record of a bygone Germanic-American marriage tradition. This weathervane, meanwhile, is part of a widespread northeast American tradition which revolved around Christian depictions of the archangel Gabriel.

Contemporary Folk Art

Today, folk art is still being made around the world, with much of it drawing upon community traditions that are hundreds of years old. The Filipino painter Elito Circa uses indigenous human hair and blood, and draws upon the mythologies of his home country to create his artworks. Like most folk artists (Alfred Wallis included) he has had no formal training and is dedicated to using locally sourced materials such as hair, vegetables and rust.

Museums & Galleries

Around the world, you’ll find many different folk art centres. These museums and galleries tend to celebrate the artworks of the local people, but sometimes provide a wider look at global folk art trends as well. At the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you can view more than 130,000 objects from 100 countries around the world. The folk art on display comes from countries like Indonesia, China, Sweden, Poland, Mexico and India (to name just a few) and incorporates everything from shadow puppets and wood carvings, to clothing and jewellery.

Closer to home is the Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park in Warwickshire, where you’ll find the largest collection of British folk art in the UK.

Don’t forget that you can bring your favourite folk art pieces into your own home with the help of easyFrame. Find a print or photograph of your favourite artwork, and you can get it mounted and framed using our easy service. Visit our Picture Frames & Mounts page, and you can enter the dimensions of your image, choose your frame and mount style, and have a custom-made picture frame delivered straight to your door.

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