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American Folk Art: Historical, Beautiful and Bizarre

McComb, Jessie F., a Fulbright Scholar, was in New Delhi for a year studying the lost wax casting process of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh and the surrounding areas. Back in America, she is going to contribute to our website in a new series Letter from America. Ms. McComb received a BA in both Art History and Physics in 2003 from Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. In addition to her interests in Indian folk and tribal crafts, she has worked extensively with Contemporary Indian Art.

It has now been a little over a year since I returned from India and started writing Postmark America. I remember the sensation I felt last year as fall set in and I was embraced by the warmth, tradition and spirit of autumn in America's Northeast. During this time of year people often pause to reminisce about their family and cultural traditions. They spend more time than usual decorating their houses with handmade crafts and take the time to enjoy a slower paced life.

With this in mind, I embarked on an investigation of American folk art thinking that I would come across meticulously crafted quilts and craved wooden furniture representative early America. Instead, I found a kinship of folk artists very much in tune with the contemporary world, as well as an audience eager to be engaged by these creative masters. But what surprised me most was the depth and variety of art being created and of philosophies on what makes something folk art or someone a folk artist.

To start with the most traditional representation of folk art, I did a little research on the American Folk Art Museum, located in the heart of cosmopolitan America: New York. Even this stronghold of traditional folk art displays pieces that vary from the norm. Their newest permanent exhibit, Folk Art Revealed, covers a wide array of folk art that was made throughout the eighteenth, ninetieth and twentieth centuries, with even a few pieces from our current age. The exhibit revolved around four themes that are found in all pieces of folk art throughout the centuries and relate to both conventional and unconventional manners of expression.

The themes of symbolism, utility, individuality and community frame this exhibit in a way that allows comparison between objects as diverse as a mid-19th century Tooth trade sign and a 20th century piece titled Les Amis, that uses Masonic and Haitian cultural symbols to express the hope of growing positive interactions between Haiti and the US. The categories also highlight that folk art, although traditionally the beautification of utilitarian items, often has a deeper impact with its social commentary and individual expression. Pieces like Jessie Telfair's "Freedom Quilt" resonate a societal issue and speak for both the artist's individual struggle as well as a battle an entire community is fighting. The quilt depicts only the word "freedom" in bold, block letters and reference Jessie's plight to register to vote as black women in the South in the 1960s.

Although the American Folk Art Museum has an extensive collection of folk art, it doesn't represent the entire gamut of American creativity. Much folk art can be described as being made by self-taught artists whose creativity is expression based and often a little bizarre. Take for example Jeff D. McKissack's "The Orange Show", a handmade personal space in Houston, Texas. Built over 25 years and now maintained by a foundation dedicated to the site, "The Orange Show" is a "folk art shrine" that consists of a series of structures which covers two city lots. Constructed from found objects and raw material like "old wheels, ceramic tiles, various bric-a-brac and discards", the epic work pays homage to McKissack's favorite fruit: the orange.

At its opening in 1979, "The Orange Show" didn't draw many visitors which some people say ultimately caused McKissack to die of a broken heart. However, the site is now managed by The Orange Show Foundation which hosts tours, workshops and educational programs focused on Houston's cultural life. Houston is also home to other oddities in American folk art like the Beer Can House, created by John Milkovisch, as well as Cleveland Turner's "The Flower Man's Garden".

Although the Intent Statement for Design Education is a massive step for the progress of Indian design education and implementation there seemed to me a point that was overlooked, put aside or at least just not directly addressed. The need for practical based experience for design students hovered just below the surface of the intent statement and was never clearly stated as necessary, important or eventual. For students coming from the top institutes in India, their designs are instilled with creativity, innovation and genius but can often fail in the market due to their impracticality or distance from market demands.

These amazing sites, as well as the in-depth exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum, opened my eyes to the diversity of folk art that is still alive in America. It is always reassuring to realize that the holders of our cultural heritage and the cultivators of American creativity have not been overcome modernization but rather manipulated it to their own advantage. As nations the world over deal with globalization and a loss of traditions, these artists can stand testament to the fact that creativity cannot be homogenized.

More information about the American Folk Art Museum and the exhibit Folk Art Revealed can be found at http://www.folkartmuseum.org/.

To learn more about "The Orange Show" and "The Beer Can House" visit http://www.orangeshow.org/.



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