Your Introduction to Folk and Outsider Art

William Hawkins (1895-1990), "Mt. Vernon", c. 1988, oil enamel on Masonite

We recently encountered a collection of American folk art which included paintings, pottery and wood carvings, reviving my excitement for this art form.  Folk art consists of decorative or functional objects like weathervanes, toys, trade signs, samplers and quilts, boxes and baskets, stoneware vessels and the more traditional mediums of paintings and sculptures.  Works were typically created in the late 19th and early 20th century by “common” or itinerant painters, potters, carvers, and crafters. Each work of art tells a story about the creator and their purpose.   Creativity, eccentricity, and individual expression are, indeed, the purest definition of this art form.

Professional vs. Outsider Artists

A professional artist is one who typically completes many years of training in special schools, earns certificates, diplomas, degrees and passes other academic rigors not unlike professionals in any other field. They forge partnerships with dealers and gallerists who help them sell their works. As a result of these high standards, the art world has often been called “elitist,” even “pretentious.”

The term “outsider” has been attributed to those artists who have NOT been classically trained or gainfully employed as professional artists.  Some of the most sought-after “outside artists” made their living as farmers; others were soldiers; many were vagrants and hobos.

Practices that were handed down from one generation to another, like quilting or whittling, were commonplace two centuries ago.  While the European art academies were teaching the most revered methods, folk painters often abandoned perspective, proportion, light and shadow.  Artists worked in less traditional stylized aesthetics and relied more upon bold colors, a generalized light source, and playful or whimsical forms.  They celebrated their cultural legacy, often reacting against the limitations of (or ignoring) the fine art world.

New Jersey's Antique Furniture Store
Bill Traylor (Alabama, 1853–1949), pencil on cardboard. Born into slavery, he began to draw at the age of 85. While working on the sidewalks of Montgomery, Traylor produced nearly 1,500 pieces of art.
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Lanier Meaders (Georgia, 1918-98) face jug, Georgia. Taught by his grandfather and father, he used a foot-powered treadle wheel and a wood-fired kiln. “They're about the ugliest thing a person can make. They have no earthly value at all." A wonderful quality of face jugs is that they unabashedly capture what they are intended to be...Ugly.

Museum Influences

In the early 2000s, the American Folk Art Museum in New York introduced the public to a wide variety of art and utilitarian objects produced by self-taught artists.  It was a celebratory exhibit like none seen by cosmopolitan museum goers previously. Displayed in a unique contemporary building built in 2001 on West 53rd Street, scholarship bloomed and the marketplace followed. (It has since moved uptown.)

Meanwhile in Virginia, when Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s Folk Art Museum moved to a more accessible location next to the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg in 2007, visitation tripled and introduced thousands to an enchanting variety of work by talented, self-trained artists and craftsmen. In 2017, the prestigious and vetted Winter Antiques Show exhibited a curated and stunning collection of folk art belonging to the Museum.

The Folk Art Market

The exposure that those museums brought to the art form also stimulated auction houses to seek out folk art objects to sell.  The early 2000s represented the height of the market.  The medium exploded and copies followed.  Lots of untrained artists became productive, selling naïve decorative art.  Today, great and important Folk Art still sells for top prices, while lesser decorations sell affordably.  Collectors still get jazzed by fantastical and bold expressions of personality or history.

The 21st century interior design world’s foundation is clean and modern, a perfect back drop for the colorful whimsy of American Folk Art.  Both flat and three-dimensional works stand out in today’s contemporary decorator styles.  There’s always room for personality.  Make sure you include some in your collection!


Co-authors: Lynn Magnusson, ASA, AAA and Kollin Handler, Communications Director

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