What is Folk Art?

/ Exhibitions

Charlie Lucas, American, born Birmingham, Alabama 1951; works in Pink Lily and Selma, Alabama, Duck or Goose, about 1985, metal; Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection; Gift of Caroline Cargo, AFI.496.2013
Charlie Lucas, American, born Birmingham, Alabama 1951; works in Pink Lily and Selma, Alabama, Duck or Goose, about 1985, metal; Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection; Gift of Caroline Cargo, AFI.496.2013

What is Folk Art?

The term has meant different things over time, and many scholars have written about the problems with this catch-all category. It has referred to craft traditions passed down through generations within communities. It has sometimes referred to artists without formal education or artistic training, and those who create outside of the academic or commercial gallery context.

Other terms have been used to describe these same artists and art over the years: outsider, self-taught, primitive, brut, visionary, rural, isolated, and vernacular. No one label fits, but they are assigned all the same by an anxious art world that categorizes and ranks, includes and excludes, and determines quality and market value. Art dealer Randall Morris stated,

Entire bodies of work have disappeared from our knowledge banks because the art establishment did not have the right word to describe it. Environments both sacred and secular are destroyed every week because their importance in this universe has never been understood … We are the outsiders.

As Alabama artist Charlie Lucas said more directly to Gail Andrews, Birmingham Museum of Art Director Emerita, “What they be callin’ us today?”

Inspired by the current Maker Movement, this curatorial project began by removing all labels and categories listed above and identifying these artists first as makers. The makers, we determined, could also be described as messengers, storytellers, interpreters, protectors, healers, narrators, recorders, innovators, seekers, dreamers, and believers. They are seers, evangelizers, providers, philosophers, penitents, persuaders, and entertainers. They are quilters, carvers, weavers, painters, builders, recyclers, and assemblers. They are—among many other things—ministers, farmers, bricklayers, housekeepers, teachers, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.

The contemporary Maker Movement began within the last decade in the tech world, with the desire to create tangible things from the world of pixels. Open-source software, apps, and 3D printers have allowed people to move away from screens to constructing things for themselves (rather than purchasing mass-manufactured objects). The movement is characterized by a return to self-reliance and personal creativity in designing and building things of all sorts. It reflects a profound desire to re-engage with the physical world and now crosses many sectors. Maker spaces have popped up in communities everywhere, and Maker Faires are held all over the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of do-it-yourselfers ranging from makers of robotics to crafter of artisanal foods. The movement supports creativity and independence, but it also provides a community of individuals who are linked by their commitment to the movement.

Excerpt from The Original Makers catalogue, now available for purchase in the Museum Store.

The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection has been made possible by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, Alabama State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Alabama Power Foundation. We also extend our gratitude to the City of Birmingham for their sustained support for the Museum and its mission.