Art History 101: Folk Art In Modern Art History

From humble beginnings to auction records, this week we’re delving into the world of folk art and the artists who express their unique views of their communities for the masses to enjoy.
Featured Image: Clementine Hunter, “The Wash” (c. 1950), oil on board, Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Often misconstrued as craft or amateur art, folk art is an important piece of the art market. Typified by simplified forms, narrative, and color palette, folk art has inspired many of the market’s most celebrated post-modern and contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basqiat and Chris Ofili. This week we are looking at the history and significance of folk art and its place within the wider marketplace.

The callus exclamation: “My kid could do that!” incites groans throughout art world professionals, and folk art is a popular target for one of the most hated phrases in the community. Could your child do this? Perhaps, let them have a go! Although folk art may on the surface seem like a rudimentary and unsophisticated art form, the practice exhibits a rich history of artist’s on the fringe of society and accepted art community, paving a way for themselves in the historically opaque market. Folk art reflects the cultural life of a specific community executed by its own members. Rather than a classically trained artist creating works of their experience as an outsider of the community, these self-taught artists create works often without formal training, offering their unique perspective on the daily life, issues, and folklore associated with their cultural heritage.

The American Folk Art Museum, New York

Folk art is most notable in historically colonial countries such as Canada and the United States of America where European settlers and Black communities used folk art to express their cultural perspectives in the visual arts. Portraits of community leaders, scenes of the everyday, and landscape works are primary subject matters for folk artists, however still lifes also pepper the market place. Finely crafted and painted furniture pieces, quilts and ceramics also fall into the category of folk art, however for our purposes this week, we’ll be focusing on two dimensional works with additional resources below.

Favoring bold colour, often-flattened landscapes, and simplified forms, folk artists are primarily self-taught and regionally celebrated. Many times, works by the artists were not necessarily produced for the sole purpose of income, but rather created to decorate homes and community spaces to remind of local heritage. Artist materials were sometimes procured by traditional art stores and other times were donated to artists in exchange for works. First and foremost, pieces are meant to convey community values and aesthetics, immediately recognizable to a community member. Materials can range from traditional canvas and board supports to sea shells, driftwood, found objects, and textile, with mediums also varying from painting, carving, papier-mâché, quilting and more.

Inspecting a frame painted and crafted by folk artist, Joe Norris.

Interestingly, folk art can also be considered a form of Outsider Art. Folk artists can be outsiders within their own communities whether by gender, race, or able bodiedness and have a distinct perspective of their community life that they seek to express. These pieces can also have a functional quality such as carved and painted picture frames, cabinets, and boxes, but are still artworks at their core. Folk art pieces can blur lines of the hi-lo discourse in defining art and this binary is always at play in these works.

Joy, liveliness, charm and wit are at the core of many folk artworks. So how does that translate in the primary and secondary markets of the art world? For many collectors and fans of folk artist’s works, it is that exact charm and personal connection that is the draw to collect works by these artists. Artist’s like Canada’s Maud Lewis (1903-1970) and America’s Grandma Moses (1860-1961) are excellent examples of iconic folk artist’s fetching exceptional prices both through the gallery and auction markets.

Maud Lewis is one of Canada’s most celebrated artists who has experienced a massive resurgence in popularity and appreciation after a 2016 biopic “Maudie”. Works by the artist have fetched north of $55,000 USD in recent years, whereas in 2015, works would regularly hover around $4,000 USD. Lewis had a life filled with hardships as a society outcast, and sold hand painted christmas cards to neighbors and small beaverboard paintings out of her home to tourists and locals alike. Crippled with arthritis, Lewis channeled her joy of painting into her works of regional Nova Scotia life and sold her pieces for $5 CAD a piece to sustain herself. The serial images of sleighing scenes and black cats endeared a nation and increased the appetite for her works on the market.

Bill Mayberry inspecting two artworks by Maud Lewis

Bill Mayberry of Mayberry Fine Art (Winnipeg/ Toronto), remarks on his extensive experience handling the artist’s works and the meteoric rise in popularity of Lewis’s folk pieces:

“I firmly believe that Canadian Art is closely connected to our culture and who we are as a Nation. It’s a  constant, everchanging, and ongoing evolution. Maud Lewis, in her own simple way, was an important cog in that artistic evolutionary wheel. Her story and artistic contributions are there for all to see. Her delightful little paintings will be on the wish lists of museums and collectors for many years to come.

To my knowledge, there are no other artists whose works have risen in value from a mere few dollars to over $60,000 CAD within my fifty years in the Canadian Art Business. It is truly amazing and unprecedented.”

Similarly, Grandma Moses also had humble beginnings. Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York and grew up on her family’s farm. First working as a young woman for other farm families, performing chores and assisting with labor, Moses later married at 27 and had 10 children while assisting with farm duties. It was not until the earnest age of 78 that Moses began painting the detailed familiar New England scenes pulled from her childhood memories that she is best known for.

The 1969 U.S. postage stamp honoring Grandma Moses. It re-creates her painting Fourth of July, which the White House owns.

It was not until New York collector Louis J. Caldor chanced upon Moses’s work in 1939  and encouraged her professional career. After seeing her works in a drugstore window, Caldor purchased 15 of her paintings, and three of the works from his initial purchase were included in the “Contemporary Unknown American Painters” exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Continuing to exhibit throughout New York and the wider USA, Moses gained immense notoriety and her works are now included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Bennington Museum in Vermont.

In a 1953 article with TIME Magazine, the artist remarked “I painted for pleasure, to keep busy and to pass the time away…but I thought no more of it than of doing fancy work.” Moses’s works tend to hover around the $50,000 USD, however in 2006, “Sugaring Off”, a delightful scene of springtime sap collection to make maple syrup, was sold for $1.2 million USD at Christies, New York and set the record for a work by the artist. Moses is testament to a successful art career at a mature age.

Grandma Moses donating her painting “Battle of Bennington” to Mrs. George Kuhner who accepted it for the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Black folk artists are an integral component in the narrative of the genre and cannot be overlooked. Colonial histories, lost heritage, rebuilding communities, and issues of race meld into artworks and provide needed diverse voices in folk art.

Clementine Hunter (c. 1887- 1988) lived the majority of her life on the Melrose cotton plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana. Having worked from a young age, Hunter did not learn to read or write and only painted at night after working all day on the plantation. It was not until her mature years that she was recognized for her work, although Hunter spoke of painting long before this time. Working from memories of Southern life in the Cane River Valley in the early twentieth century, she was entirely self-taught and except for a short year of primary school, received no other formal education, art or otherwise. Hunter stated: “I just get it in my mind and I just go ahead and paint but I can’t look at nothing and paint. No trees, no nothing. I just make my own tree in my mind, that’s the way I paint.”

She first exhibited her works in 1949 and New Orleans Arts and Crafts Show, however she did not garner public attention until the 1970s after both the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited her paintings. Using a bright colorful palette, Hunter depicted scenes of important life events like funerals, baptisms, and weddings and also gave focus on plantation labor like picking cotton or pecans, and domestic labor that was outside of her white counterparts.

Portrait of Clementine Hunter

Like Maud Lewis, Hunter began selling her paintings to sustain herself. After the death of her husband, Hunter began to sell her works out of her cabin for 25 cents per painting and also contributed illustrations to local cookbooks, murals, and quilt works with one of her quilts “One Chevron Quilt” is part of the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Radcliffe College also included Hunter in its Black Women Oral History Project, published in 1980.

As with many women artist’s throughout the canon of art history, expertly made works can sometimes be lacking attribution. Many women in the home contributed to the folk art practice throughout history, however, recognition of their art was not always given as oftentimes, their artworks were relegated as “domestic craft” or “hobby work”. However, museums like The American Folk Art Museum design programming around folk art masterworks including unknown artists at the top of their field to celebrate these unsung heroes of the art form.

Leonard Knight’s “Salvation Mountain”, California

Additional artist’s to check out in your folk art journey:

A great resource for artists, history and exhibitions, The American Folk Art Museum is an excellent resource to get more familiar with folk.

We’ve listed some additional resources to check out below:

Katlin Rogers
Katlin Rogers
Katlin is a Toronto-based art consultant, advisor, and appraiser. She holds a Master’s in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London and enjoys writing on topics surrounding the globalization of the art world, politics and ethics in art, and post-colonial theories in contemporary art.