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Folk Art: So Much More than Grandma Moses

by priceminer (03/25/09).

Editor’s note: The charm of folk-art collectibles reaches far beyond rural artists. Learn what folk art really is, and see some wonderful examples.

By Wayne Mattox

A painter peeked into a shed and saw a man hammering out a large copper form into the shape of a galloping horse. “I envy you, wind-vane maker,” the artist said. “All the sky is your canvas.”

When I’m writing or talking antiques, I often introduce trade terms, words or phrases common to a particular profession but rarely used otherwise, then quickly go on to explain their meaning. “Folk art” is a phrase I spread as freely as a pâtissier spreads butter, yet I have never defined it. That is because task is more difficult than it seems.

Let’s begin by dismissing the common notion that folk art consists only of handmade art forms produced by rural artists:

Naive paintings by the likes of Grandma Moses, Ammi Phillips or Rufus Porter

American primitive oil painting

American primitive oil painting

Two portraits attributed to Ammi Phillips

Two portraits attributed to Ammi Phillips

Learn more about the primitive painting by clicking here and the portraits here.

School and home craftwork pieces like needlework samplers, calligraphy drawings, quilts and textile products, silhouettes, etc.
Itinerant carvings and sculpture by artisans like Pennsylvania bird and dog carvers, Wilhelm Schimmel(1817-90) and Aaron Mountz(1873-1949), or “tramp artists” of the Great Depression who notched stacks of cigar-box lids and fashioned them into decorative boxes, frames and other objects

Folk prison art matchstick sailboat

Folk prison art matchstick sailboat

folk-prison-art-matchstick-sailboat-closeups

This beautiful matchstick sailboat is featured on GoAntiques.

Hand-fashioned sailor, soldier and tradesman products—scrimshaw-engraved whalebone, carved powder horns, uniquely stylized iron, tin, wood, copper and other products.

Such objects account for only about a half of what is collected as folk art today. The other half consists of articles manufactured by businesses and highly trained professionals.

Weather vanes and whirligigs, which in later years, were mass produced in great number

Milking cow whirligig

Milking cow whirligig

Running horse weather vane

Running horse weather vane

Clown whirligig

Clown whirligig

Click here for more information on the milking cow whirligig, here for the weather vane and here for the delightful clown whirligig.

Store and other signs—wrought and painted by professional sign makers, who also were employed to paint sleds and wagon sides and other such objects that have folk art appeal today
Fancy work—carved carousel horses, cigar-store Indians, ship figureheads and stern boards, sophisticated architectural elements and other pieces fashioned by accomplished metropolitan artisans. (If you’d like to learn more about carousels, read Lakeside Merry-Go-Round Features Folk-Art Carvings and Carousel Goes Around and Around for 80 Years.)

Carved figurehead

Carved figurehead

French carousel horse

French carousel horse

If you’re interested in adding this carved figurehead to your collection or decor, visit GoAntiques. For more information on the spectacular carousel horse, click here.

Industrial products that have assumed charm over time—interesting broadsides, decorated stoneware, cookie cutters, cowboy spurs and barbed wire, fancy cast iron, old advertising displays, fire fighting and other occupational memorabilia, fancy hood ornaments, old Coca-Cola dispensers, etc.

Coke machine

Coke machine

It only takes a nickel to get a Coke from this machine. Go to GoAntiques to find out how many nickels are needed to take home this neat retro dispenser.

It is obvious that folk art encompasses many mediums. What seems to distinguish it from fine art is that its intent was not art for art’s sake. A painted fire bucket was made first and foremost for extinguishing fires. A cigar-store Indian was employed to sell cigars. Samplers were wrought to teach young girls their stitches. Weather vanes were for gauging wind. A strong argument could even be made that whale teeth and horn and other such objects were decorated as much to pass time as anything else.

Eskimo-carved scrimshaw shakers

Eskimo-carved scrimshaw shakers

Wouldn’t these salt and pepper shakers look great on your table?

While folk art should be assessed as to its authenticity, condition, color and form, know, too, that it has much to do with history. Americans covet innkeeper signs, woven baskets, painted toleware and silhouettes of George and Martha Washington because we are enchanted with our proud past.

Hand-painted toleware tray

Hand-painted toleware tray

George Washinton silhouette

George Washinton silhouette

More information on the exceptional tray and this 18th-century silhouette can be found on GoAntiques.

Understand this, and you have taken your first step toward identifying a valuable art form.

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