A painter peeked into a shed and saw at 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 pattissier 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 hand-made art-forms produced by rural artists:
- Naive paintings - by the likes of Grandma Moses, Ami Phillips, or Rufus Porter.
- 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.
- Hand-fashioned sailor, soldier, and tradesman products - Scrimshaw engraved whalebone, carved powderhorns, uniquely stylized iron, tin, wood, copper, and other products.
Such objects account for only about 1/2 of what is collected as folk art today. The other half consists of articles manufactured by businesses and highly trained professionals.
- Weathervanes and whirligigs - which, in later years, were mass produced in great number.
- 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 sternboards, sophisticated architectural elements, and other pieces fashioned by accomplished metropolitan artisans.
- 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.
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. Weathervanes 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. 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, and woven baskets, and painted toleware, and silhouettes of George and Martha Washington because we are enchanted with our proud past.
Understand this, and you have taken your first step toward identifying a valuable art form.