Folk Art: Sometimes fine art, sometimes craft, it defies definition

Dec 1, 2002

The workshop on the south side of Bloomington is snug, and all the surfaces are coated with a yellowish film. Shelved against the wall are strips of rosewood, hackberry, maple, walnut, sycamore, cedar and sassafras. 

“If you cut the sassafras with a saw,” observes Dale Evans, a central Illinois maker of old-time musical instruments, “it smells like root beer.”

Evans moves quietly around the work tables, pointing out the table saw, band saw, drill press, sander, scroll saw, jointer and wood lathe, as well as dozens of hand tools, including two tiny carpenter’s squares fashioned of walnut and brass. On the wall hang templates in the shape of double French curves, the blueprints for pear-shaped violins or mountain dulcimers. 

“No two instruments are alike. Each one is unique,” he explains, pointing to a mountain dulcimer in the final stages of construction. He’s still working on the nut and the bridge, the top and bottom ends of the fretting, critical in the production of the instrument’s tone. “Fretting is an art form,” he says, holding up a roll of wire, which he snips and hammers into precisely sawed lines in the neck of the instrument.

Like weaving baskets and carving duck decoys, making mountain dulcimers is an Illinois folk tradition. And the practitioners of these arts belong to small but well-defined communities of artisans. Illinois is also home to potters, including Bill Heyduck of Charleston, and quilters, such as Cora Meek of Mattoon. Like the musical instruments made by Evans, their pottery and quilting reinterprets and rejuvenates Illinois folk art, keeping it alive for another generation.

At one end of the spectrum of what has been called folk art are the traditional crafts, including chair making, basket weaving, pottery throwing, textile weaving and metal working, skills usually passed along from a learned master to an eager apprentice. At the other end of the spectrum is so-called outsider art, the raw, unpredictable and uninhibited objects created by self-taught artists working outside the academy. This might include sculpture from scrapped auto parts or the work of Chicago painter Lee Godie, who makes her art from ballpoint pen ink, glitter, feathers and bits of thread. In between these two extremes are the quilts, dolls, duck decoys and weathervanes, and the portraits or landscapes of such self-taught painters as Grandma Moses. 

So folk art can be construed as something plain or decorative, functional or nonfunctional, traditional or contemporary. And because the term “folk art” suggests such a diversity of forms, it defies easy definition. Yet, as the the spectrum widens, folk art becomes more influential.

What remains constant in any reckoning of folk art, however, is total commitment to craftsmanship, the artistic integrity of the finished product. The mountain dulcimer, according to Evans, is “an unforgiving instrument. If it’s not built right, it will tear itself apart. You have to make it so it sounds good and stays together. It took me 10 or 15 attempts to get it right. Experience, experience, experience.” 

Back in his apartment in downtown Bloomington, Evans plays and displays all of the three dozen instruments that share his home, along with many of his paintings from his art school days in the late 1960s at Indiana University. Dale is a creative person, assembling an er’hu, a two-string Chinese fiddle, from a tin can and old violin strings. The thing produces a cello-like sound.

No surprise, Evans does programs at local schools and plays banjo in the Tater Patch String Band, enjoying such traditional folk tunes as Soldier’s Joy, Arkansas Traveler and Ragtime Annie. And this genial and self-effacing luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, is fulfilling presumptions about folk art. He works with natural materials, follows traditional models and helps to advance Illinois’ cultural tradition in folk music and its particular instruments, including banjos and folk violins. Like the potters and quilters and woodworkers, he is clearly making a functional object, though many contemporary folk artists also are producing entirely nonfunctional pieces.

Evans began as a claw-hammer banjo player, but his first instruments were fabricated entirely from found objects, not exactly true “folk art,” but certainly in tune with the nontraditional mater-ials and forms of outsider art. 

He admits a certain satisfaction in being able “to look at a pile of junk and make an instrument.” Tin cans, broken musical instruments, serviceable parts of chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture can be cut, shaped and reconfigured into the unexpected form of a musical instrument. His adaptive reuse, to borrow an architectural term, of natural materials can be applied to traditional forms with surprisingly “authentic” results.

Like a proud father, he shows off a beautiful mountain dulcimer, an instrument the size of a violin that rests flat on the knees and is plucked or strummed like a guitar. The mountain dulcimer is Scots-Irish in origin and came west by way of the Appalachians, then to Kentucky and southern Illinois. So this instrument is truly part of the state’s heritage. This particular dulcimer, however, was made from a discarded butcher’s block and an abandoned chest of drawers. 

“It’s a shame to send this stuff to a landfill,” he laments. “It’s my pride and joy.” 

Evans’ forte is the larger cousin of the mountain dulcimer, the hammered dulcimer. He has made more than 260 of them, and he keeps No. 100 in his apartment. Popular in the Eastern states during the 19th century, the hammered dulcimer is a more upscale instrument, requiring more skill to play and carrying a higher price tag. He charges a reasonable $800 for his handmade version, constructed of mahogany, redwood, walnut and hard maple. The strings are delicately struck with two little walnut hammers, though in the past folk musicians have substituted corset stays or bamboo leaf-rake tines.

Some theorists insist folk art must follow a master-apprentice pattern. And while that relationship certainly existed in the past, contemporary folk artists often are revered precisely because they fit no mold and work with complete independence — or because their “master” takes the form of a blueprint or another dulcimer. In the 21st century, as in the 19th and 20th, folk art forms are disseminated by a variety of media, including books, magazines, films and Web sites. This trend is particularly evident in the communication of popular design motifs for American quilts. 

Folk artists share, in addition to commitment to craftsmanship, a singular, personal vision. Each artifact they produce, no matter how old or new, has a dramatic presence and carves out a special niche in our consciousness, like the painted wooden fish made by the late Arthur Ryan Walker of Sullivan in east central Illinois.

Like many artists, curators, potters and woodworkers, Evans balks at the term “folk art,” probably because of the possible negative connotations of that elusive concept. Folk art is sometimes considered “naive” or “primitive,” something produced by a person who is unskilled, self-taught or outside the academic tradition — and there is some measure of truth in those prejudices. 

But “folk” is a highly resonant and positive word, too, as in folk music and folklore or the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Archaeologist Robert Mazrim, curator and owner of the Sangamo Archaeological Center in central Illinois’ Elkhart, which contains a treasure trove of domestic artifacts from Illinois frontier life between 1780 and 1840, says any definition of folk art “depends on the parameters of time and place.” Those circles, he says, have been broadened. In fact, the closer we come to the present, the more visible and influential folk art becomes. 

Evans concludes that he is working in the tradition of medieval luthiers. “It is an art, but I think of myself as a folk craftsman.” But his artistry is nevertheless recognized in Tuning the Wood: Contemporary Illinois Stringed Instrument Builders, a book about folk musical instruments that was published in 1987 by the Illinois State Museum.

This squeamishness about direct application of the term “folk art” is plainly evident in the official language and catalog descriptions used by such state agencies as the museum, the Department of Transportation, the Illinois Arts Council and the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, which published last year a volume titled Made in Illinois: An Artisan Gallery, lavishly illustrating sculptural objects, textiles, jewelry and pottery. That book is a visual testament to the variety, quality and beauty of art objects currently being produced in abundance all over the state of Illinois. 

One of the featured potters is Bill Heyduck, a former ceramics professor from Eastern Illinois University, who exhibits regionally and maintains a shop and studio in the east central Illinois community of Charleston. His work is regularly offered for sale at the Tarble Arts Center in Charleston and in the gift shops of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Chicago and Rend Lake. 

Like Robert Mazrim, Heyduck immediately alludes to the historical tradition of pottery in Illinois, particularly the Kirkpatrick Family, which originally located in Vermilionville in LaSalle County in 1836, later moving to Anna and other locations in southern Illinois. The family was famous for producing whiskey bottles in the shape of pigs, some of which were incised with the map of the Illinois Central Railroad and used as promotional items by the company. 

Mazrim was particularly taken with Wallace Kirkpatrick, famous for his many whimsical designs, especially those depicting snakes, which earned him the nickname “Mad Potter of Illinois.” 

But the playfulness and directness of the Kirkpatrick designs are very much at the center of traditional understandings of folk art, which includes cigar store Indians, ship figureheads, weathervanes, boot scrapers, dolls and bird decoys, as cataloged by Jean Lipman in the classic American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone, published in 1948. 

Many of these pieces have a humorous, even quirky, quality, and Heyduck picks up on that aspect of the folk tradition in his various “cat” creations, including pitchers, jars and teapots lidded with distinctive cat heads. They have become his trademark, as he has been producing them for the past 10 years, probably under the influence of animal-shaped pottery collected during a year he spent in Mexico. 

He can’t keep up with the demand. “They’re all useful,” he insists, gleefully pouring water from a teapot with a spout shaped like the mouth of a cat.

Like Evans, Heyduck places a high premium on craftsmanship. Any defective pieces are relegated to his “mistake shelf,” the graveyard of cracked pots or those with runny glazes. In his work building, his big bisque kiln has been fired exactly 180 times, according to his well-annotated log. Heyduck specializes in stoneware, which is fired at 2200 to 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, unlike earthenware pottery (terra cotta pots) that are fired at temperatures around 900 to 2100 degrees. He keeps several shelves stacked with jugs of raw materials, including talc, wood ash, dolomite and feldspar, which can be combined with cobalt, chromium and yellow ochre to produce, respectively, shiny glazes in brilliant hues of blue, green and reddish brown. 

“‘Craftsman’ to some people means just repeating designs, but no one does that anymore,” says Heyduck. In fact, his considerable body of original work eloquently demonstrates that academically trained potters can and do participate in the folk tradition, though he has no immediate master or predecessor. Nor does he belong to a specific local tradition, like the potters of southern Ohio, who still work in a distinctive regional style. But Heyduck, like the snake potter Kirkpatrick, is an indisputable Illinois original who has made a living from his craft or art, however it is defined. He is squarely in the folk tradition. And, if a label is required, it should be neo-folk artist.

This whole question of tradition becomes especially tricky to assess in the area of quilting. Like pottery and the making of old musical instruments, quilting seems to progress in a continuous line from the recognizable patterns of 19th century quilts to the thematic and art quilts of the present day, which may be abstract expressionist creations in stitched cloth or eloquent pleas for victims of AIDS or family abuse. 

Quilting, especially that of such small communities as the Shakers, the Amish and the Mennonites, would seem, at first glance, to depend on a tradition and a master-apprentice mode of learning. Yet all American quilters participated in a stylistic discourse that depended on such common patterns and designs as Tumbling Blocks, Wedding Ring, Sunburst, Starburst, Nine Patch, Pinwheel, Hourglass and Diamond in the Square. Several thousand of these patterns have been identified, and the historical truth is that they were popularized by magazines and newspapers as much as they were by individual quilters. 

So an Amish quilter in Pennsylvania might secure a copy of the Nine Patch pattern independently of her cousins, say, in Indiana and Illinois who were making similar quilts. There is no such thing as an Amish quilt per se, though there certainly are Amish-produced quilts. 

The quilt is a perfect example of the democratic spreading of an artistic style through mass media. Even the cotton batting used by quilters was commercially available as early as the 1840s, around the time the frontier period ended in Illinois. So to find a folk quilt, one must look deep into the historical record — or seek signs of originality outside the media-driven patterns. 

The decorative arts department at the Illinois State Museum contains three quilts that meet these criteria handily. Sally Kincaid Mitchell’s scrap wool quilt of orange and brown dominant tones with blue striping and plaids was a unique creation that appeared around the time the Illinois frontier ceased to be. Cotton appliqué quilts such as the ones produced by Elizabeth Sutherland Jones (leaf and berry design) and Katherine Schlesinger Kaiser (tulip vase design) are utterly original products that, like all works of art, proceed from a personal vision. These quilts are true folk art while the other popular pattern quilts could be considered “folk objects,” borrowing the nomenclature Mazrim uses to distinguish the various types of early Illinois pottery.

Another indisputable folk art quilt is the denim scrap quilt by Cora Meek, which is housed in the Tarble Arts Center. This highly expressive design, with its white outlines of fish, leaves and gingerbread men seems strangely modern, like a surrealistic production of Dali or Miro. It has a style all its own. As Michael Watts, director of Tarble, has observed, “There’s a truth and directness to folk art, and you don’t want to see that lost.” 

The influence of folk art on other contemporary styles is now an issue because examples of folk art, “naive art,” or outsider art are on display at such museums as Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outside Art in Chicago, the subject of a recent Associated Press story. And we now have the paradox of young artists at the Art Institute of Chicago painting academic imitations of outsider art, just as Lisa Mahar’s nontraditional painted chairs are featured in the Made in Illinois volume. 

The lines are harder to draw, and the boundaries are more easily broken. The Illinois Arts Council has solved the problem of defining folk art by linking it to ethnic and community-based art, then awarding grant money on that basis. No matter how we define it, folk art is important to Illinois because it is a direct link to our frontier past and a telling clue to the shape of our future.

In some ways, folk art is in the same position today as was that raw form of pop music called “grunge rock” in the early 1990s when it was discovered and co-opted by the mainstream recording studios. Young, plaid-shirted bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana could hardly deserve claim “alternative” status once they made the Top 40 charts. Will folk art suffer a similar fate and be swallowed up by galleries, entrepreneurs and the arts network in general? After all, folk art designs are already popping up on posters and even on the cover of Time magazine. And the currently popular film White Oleander ends with a scene of an “outsider” artist recreating her life through a series of suitcases filled with such symbolic objects as human hair, clothing and religious icons.

Is it possible that we have begun a new era in art, one that will be completely driven from the bottom up? That is, will folk art become the pre-eminent art form of the 21st century, utterly dominating and possibly eradicating the beaux arts or “fine arts” tradition? 

This general cultural theory called Postmodernism certainly suggests that a movement toward openness and acceptance of diversity is the direction of the future. 

If the Intuit museum and SOFA, the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art, which also claims Chicago as its venue, are reliable indicators of the future, then folk art, in one of its several guises, is undoubtedly here to stay. And, in the end, folk art may not have a future because it may be the future. 


Dan Guillory is chair of the English Department at Millikin University in Decatur and author of Living with Lincoln: Life and Art in the Heartland. He has served on the Illinois Arts Council and the Illinois Humanities Council. 

Illinois Issues, December 2002