Sometimes fine art, sometimes craft,
it defies definition
Essay by Dan Guillory
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.
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 carpenters
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.
two instruments are alike. Each one is unique, he explains,
pointing to a mountain dulcimer in the final stages of construction.
Hes still working on the nut and the bridge, the top and bottom
ends of the fretting, critical in the production of the instruments
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.
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.
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
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
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 its 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,
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
erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle, from a tin can and old
violin strings. The thing produces a cello-like sound.
surprise, Evans does programs at local schools and plays banjo in
the Tater Patch String Band, enjoying such traditional folk tunes
as Soldiers 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
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.
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.
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 states
heritage. This particular dulcimer, however, was made from a discarded
butchers block and an abandoned chest of drawers.
a shame to send this stuff to a landfill, he laments. Its
my pride and joy.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
cant keep up with the demand. Theyre all useful,
he insists, gleefully pouring water from a teapot with a spout shaped
like the mouth of a cat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
decorative arts department at the Illinois State Museum contains
three quilts that meet these criteria handily. Sally Kincaid Mitchells
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.
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, Theres a truth and directness
to folk art, and you dont want to see that lost.
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 Mahars nontraditional painted chairs are featured in
the Made in Illinois volume.
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.
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
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
general cultural theory called Postmodernism certainly suggests
that a movement toward openness and acceptance of diversity is the
direction of the future.
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.
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
Issues, December 2002
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