Folk Arts

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An analytical category of cultural expression, "folk art" draws attention to traditional handiwork produced with aesthetic intent, typically crafted by and for ordinary people. Twentieth-century scholars began using the term to refer to a body of material produced outside of the worlds of academic art, and in the United States there has been a special interest in the relation of folk art as grass-roots expression to the rise of distinctive American identities. Examination of folk art, found in great variety among the diverse communities in the new nation, expands the evidence of art in American everyday life and raises questions about the influence on cultural production of the country's broad social and physical landscape.

There are disputes among scholars about what should properly be included in the category of folk art for the purposes of cultural and historical analysis. Many collections emphasize painting and sculpture that appear to be naive, primitive, or plain by academic standards and that therefore are assumed to be crafted by ordinary citizens. There is a tendency to overstate the middle class as "common folk" and feature novel nationalistic expressions in such collections. Many of the images presented of common folk, for example, emphasize merchants and artisans who produced or consumed portraits and wares, sometimes in imitation of status symbols marking the elite who could commission professional artists. Scholars have noted that to establish a class identity that was merely derivative of European high style, but distinctive, merchants and artisans often underscored the home-grown source of their products

contributing to the rising national identity of "ordinary" Americans.

The use of "folk" as defined by folklorists, however, implies the significance of tradition in the transmission of skills and themes in diverse community contexts. The material included in folkloristic collections that is meant to illuminate continuities with native and Old World traditions typically comprises decorated craftwork such as ethnic-regional pottery, needlework, ironwork, basketry, calligraphy, and carving. Occupational traditions, especially in maritime trades along the expanse of America's abundant shores, with sailors producing decorated scrimshaw and shipcarvings flourished. Further inland, the growth of lumber and textile industries included cottage operations producing decorative coverlets and rugs using hand-made wooden looms, wheels, and winders. Artisanship in traditional arts was encouraged by the absence of a protective European guild system in the new nation and a mobile population rapidly establishing new communities with craft needs. In addition, a can-do, self-sufficient (some say democratizing) spirit of vernacular free expression, represented by guides such as Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–1757), led Americans to believe that they could try their hand at various skills once reserved for elites.

The extent of connection to, and separation from, the Old World is not simply a matter of analyzing whether transplantation took root in the New World. Some distinctive conditions during the period of the emerging Republic affected the adaptation, hybridization, and emergence of many traditions on the American landscape. First was the presence of an indigenous population with skills and images that entered into the symbolic repertoire of many non-native

artists. Second was the diversity of languages, religions, and backgrounds in the nation, particularly in places like Pennsylvania, where—according to the 1790 census—one-third of the population spoke German and lived in homogeneous farming communities. This diversity included the significant presence of enslaved Africans, particularly in the South, many of whom incorporated African aesthetics when forced to take up British American crafts. There is also substantial evidence for the persistence of Africanisms in, among other things, ironwork, grave decoration, and basketry that informed hybrid American forms. In Louisiana, creole foodways and arts emerged from the racial mixing of blacks and whites and the ethnic fusion of Spanish, African, and French traditions. Regional cultures of New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the South, with their distinctive ethnic and religious mixtures, became entrenched as a result of diffusion emanating from several prominent ports of entry on the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast. Communities within these regions, often isolated by physical or social boundaries, maintained folk art traditions that symbolized their difference. In the Adirondacks, the pack basket became one such marker; in the South Carolina Sea Islands, it was the sweetgrass basket; in central Pennsylvania, the ryestraw basket.

The wide availability of land and the movable nature of the frontier in America contributed to the perception that a rooted peasant class associated with the folk art of European villages did not exist in the United States. But the openness of America's borders, the need for labor, and the promise of religious and political tolerance provided opportunities for separatist communities (e.g., Amish, Shakers, Harmonists) that produced distinctive artistic expressions. With settlement moving toward the varied interior, some highland communities in the Appalachians, Ozarks, and Adirondacks evolved in relative isolation and developed localized folk cultures. Some maritime locations, such as the Eastern Shore of Maryland and northern "Arcadian" Maine, were also comparatively isolated and thus preserved colonial era folk arts well into the industrial era. In not-so-isolated urban areas, folk arts also took hold, especially for immigrant and religious communities that provided for ritual needs with specialized artisans. In New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, Jewish calligraphers, stonecarvers, and metalsmiths produced ritual objects needed by the community.

Using folk art to construct a cultural history during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, one finds evidence of several themes emerging as the colonies gave way to a new nation. They were cultural expressions of nationalism and regional identity; ethnic-religious distinctions and continuities; and occupational, class, and craft consciousness.

nationalism and regional identity

As a revolutionary Republic, the United States needed icons that could be artistically expressed and ingrained in cultural traditions. In folk art, the construction of patriotic and heroic symbols for private domestic uses or public celebrations became an important aspect of nation building and regional identification. While eighteenth-century printmakers created a symbol of the thirteen colonies in the form of a fierce Amazonian Indian queen-huntress, colonists also fashioned a more Anglicized figure in the form of the more civilized, but nonetheless indigenous, Indian princess to pottery, trade signs, weather vanes, and statuary. The young, industrious maiden was usually adorned with a feathered headdress and skirt and thus represented a stylized image rather than an ethnographic portrayal of North American Indians. At the time of the protests against the Stamp Act of 1765, the figure became significant politically as the rebel daughter of the British "Britannia" and sometimes accompanied the Sons of Liberty on folk banners.

After the Revolution, the female symbol of America received a neoclassical makeover in folk expressions. She appeared as a Greek goddess in flowing robes, at least in part because of the linkage made between classical republics and the modern American nation. In folk art, the American classical icon may be accompanied by a flagpole, often with a tasseled liberty cap on top. In imitations of Edward Savage's popular engraving, Liberty, in the Form of the Goddess of Youth; Giving Support to the Bald Eagle (1796), her tender, youthful image—festooned with a flower garland—is feeding the aggressive eagle from a cup. While the name Liberty is frequently applied to this Greek revival image, she also goes by Columbia (after Christopher Columbus) and was a favorite design for post-Revolutionary ship figureheads, tobacco-store trade figures, and weather vanes. The eagle often appears alone in carvings, scissors cuttings, illuminated manuscripts, and coverlets of the period. Sometimes a shield with the colors of the new nation covers the bird's breast. In many renderings of Liberty, she is holding a cornucopia for the abundance of the new land or a torch for providing a light to the world, well before Fréderic-Auguste Bartholdi erected the Statue of Liberty, unveiled in 1886.

The liberty cap, often portrayed being hoisted on a pole, is especially prevalent in the period of the early Republic. A soft, conical hat, its symbolism of freedom and independence for Americans derives from the Roman custom of awarding it to freed slaves to wear on their shorn heads. In addition to being painted on banners and signboards as a patriotic symbol, carved and woven caps were paraded on top of poles in public processions and festivals during the early years of the nation. Among the most enthusiastic paraders were volunteer firefighters who showed their civic pride by fashioning elaborate hats, engine panels, and buckets with patriotic symbols for parades on Independence Day and other occasions.

The flag and its colors figured prominently in traditional forms marking the Americanness of their users. Among Pennsylvania Germans, for instance, patriotic eagles transformed ethnic crafts of scherenschnitte, or scissors cuttings, and fraktur, or illuminated manuscripts for baptism and weddings, into American forms. Painted furniture in "Dutchland," traditionally decorated with hearts, tulips, and rosettes, often had eagles and flags added to their design after the turn of the eighteenth century. Elsewhere, expressions of nationalism appeared to be especially evident in woven bed coverlets and table covers, hooked rugs, and quilts.

Although the United States did not claim a pantheon of gods comparable to European mythologies, the figure of George Washington arguably became mythologized as "father of his country" in folk art after his death in 1799. Schoolgirls stitched and painted memorial pictures in his memory, sign painters adopted his visage for trade shingles, and craftsmen forged weather vanes and carved cake boards and statuary with his likeness. Often shown with his horse, in uniform with period hat and sword, Washington assumed a majestic pose and typically suggested a nation inspired to action.

Often less visible than the nationalistic symbols but nonetheless significant to the American heritage of simultaneous local-national loyalties, regional expressions also emerged as signs of American distinctiveness. Frequently, these expressions were in the form of landscapes recognized as "homeland." Perhaps prepared as an overmantel, fireboard, or wall mural, the landscapes tended to emphasize the prosperity of the settlement they depicted. Connecticut-born Winthrop Chandler (1747–1790), for instance, painted for his extended family members several overmantels featuring the shorescapes of booming New England. In the South, a number of anonymous paintings of plantations, probably commissioned by the plantation owners, show the extent of their holdings. In Pennsylvania, many folk renderings of William Penn's treaty with the Indians, including fireboards completed by Pennsylvania Quaker Edward Hicks (1780–1849), establish a mythological foundation for William Penn's Holy Experiment. Sometimes called "The Peaceable Kingdom" by the artist, the scene includes animals and cherubic figures looking at the scene of the treaty in the background. Hicks frequently surrounded the painting with text such as "The leopard with the harmless kid laid down, And not one savage beast was seen to frown, when the great PENN his famous treaty made, With Indian chiefs beneath the elm tree's shade."

ethnic-religious distinctions and continuities

The practice of folk art was a visible way of expressing, reinforcing, and sometimes reformulating the identities of new settlers in new settings. In South Carolina, where African Americans were forced to cultivate rice, they created coiled baskets for fanning rice similar to those made in West Africa for that purpose. Often outnumbering whites in rice-producing regions, Africans were able to maintain craft traditions. Commonly made with hard rush plants by men during the early years of slavery, coiled baskets forming designs unlike those of Anglo-American baskets were later made with soft, pliant sweetgrass and tied with palmetto strips as reminders of African heritage. If the use of Africanisms by slaves was discouraged outside the home by masters, inside the home women retained African aesthetics in the strip quilt. Although the techniques of quilting are associated with British American tradition, the strip quilt for which long, narrow bands of cloth are assembled into quilt-top patterns harks back to West African textile techniques. The tradition of the strip quilt persists as a distinctive African American form into the twenty-first century.

The German-speaking settlers who came in large numbers to Pennsylvania beginning in 1683 were hardly united, since they came from several source areas stretching from Holland down to Switzerland. But as they mixed together, a distinctive Pennsylvania German dialect and culture formed during the eighteenth century that stretched into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and western Maryland. The colorful designs of hearts, tulips, rosettes, and birds used on baptismal paper certificates, redware pottery, painted softwood furniture, fancy linens or "show towels," gravestones, and tinware stood in contrast with the subdued products of the politically dominant English Quakers. The Pennsylvania Germans resisted control of their German-speaking schools and institutions by English-speaking authorities, and were able to do so because of their entrenchment in often inaccessible valleys. As canals and roads reached into the Dutchlands, more traffic from Philadelphia westward brought more interchange with English-speaking citizens. Laws were passed to make the Germans conform to an English standard. In central Pennsylvania, many German schoolmasters and ministers ushered in a revival of traditional designs and skills in the early nineteenth century to proclaim Pennsylvania German ethnic identity within the new American nation. Gravestones were more highly elaborated than in earlier generations, before becoming less ethnically distinctive around the Civil War. Illuminated family registers, tracing generations in the American experience, announced the maintenance of an ethnic legacy within a growing nation-state.

While the Germans covered a large regional expanse in Pennsylvania and beyond, some groups formed small enclaves of believers who wanted to live separately from "the world" or to organize utopian experiments. William Penn's Holy Experiment of religious tolerance attracted many of these groups, including the Ephrata community, which created a renowned set of illuminated hymnbooks; Moravian villages known for their slip-decorated pottery; and Harmony, which produced illustrated plans of the built and natural environment. Outside of Pennsylvania, the most notable separatist community that spanned the Revolutionary and national periods was the Shakers, known formally as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. Persecuted in England, the Shakers formed seventeen communities in the United States between 1776 and 1810. But relations between the Shakers and non-believers in America were often tense as they had been overseas, and arrests of its pacifist membership occurred during the Revolutionary War. They proclaimed their difference visually with inspirational drawings meant as "gifts of love" to one another. Among the designs were illustrated "rewards" shaped into hearts and fans; "sacred sheets" filled with motifs such as mystical circles, doves, angels, eyes, and hands; and colorful trees of life accompanied by commentaries about being led to the spirit world or messages from spirits often inspired by biblical passages.

occupational, class, and craft consciousness

The expansion of communities inland along a movable frontier and their separation from European markets created localized or regionalized markets within America for many traditional artisans. In addition, the availability of land, especially in newer, more remote settlements, fostered the taking up by farm families of a variety of crafts, including smithing, pottery, and basketry, that might have been done on a more specialized basis in a more feudal-like system. Especially notable on the American landscape was an abundance of wood, which often surprised Europeans, whose forests had been depleted. A number of American arts made use of this resource in the making of such things as cigar-store figures, signs for shops and inns, ship figureheads and stern-boards, weather vanes, bird decoys, toys and game-boards, gates, butter molds, dough trays, and cake boards.

By the time of the Revolution, furniture making was one of America's leading trades, and many examples of decorated chests, benches, tables, beds, and chairs enlivened domestic environments. In Pennsylvania German communities, it was common to bestow a decorated dower chest and bride's box, frequently painted with ethnic symbols, to newlyweds. Elsewhere, storage boxes made of wood for candles, knives, trinkets, and spices were constructed in households. Among the decorated furniture that announced rising economic status was the tall clock. Sometimes reaching as high as ninety-five inches, fancy clockworks were typically made by a special artisan, while the impressive case was made by someone else. The tall clock usually contained decorations on both the case and dial and would usually be kept in a prominent place in the hallway near the house's entrance. Indeed, one of the architectural developments in the late eighteenth century that fostered domestic arts was the idea of a "front-stage" hallway furnished with—in addition to the clock—decorative items such as framed mirrors, benches, wall hangings, and floor coverings meant to convey status before visitors were taken "back-stage."

The enlargement of the whaling trade in the early nineteenth century gave rise to a distinctive American sailor's art in scrimshaw, namely, engravings and carvings on whale's teeth and bones. Many of the scenes illustrate occupational pride in the experiences of the voyage or expressions of love for those left home. Home ports in New England as well as scenes of exotic locations and adventures are depicted, showing pride in American sailing expertise. Sailors also created implements out of whale ivory, including pie crimpers and dippers that often had carved animal figures for handles.

Although the period of the young Republic has often been romanticized as being a golden pre-industrial age when American folk art flowered, traditions continued to evolve and emerge even as industrialization and urbanization spread. While folk art is not restricted to one period, the symbols and forms of grassroots production that took shape during the early national period bring into relief the ways that people expressed their separateness and unity within a broad American landscape.

See alsoAfrican Survivals; Art and American Nationhood; Communitarian Movements and Utopian Communities; Food; Furniture; Pennsylvania; Textiles Manufacturing .


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Simon J. Bronner