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What Exactly Makes Something Folk Art?

We’ve all seen mass-produced items masquerading as handmade folk art, with Early American styles particularly popular. While bar code and country of origin stickers are certainly dead giveaways that an item is not antique folk art, the attributes that reveal a piece to be authentic are often mysterious. Have a look at some of the defining features that truly mark something as folk art.

State Archives of Florida

Basket-weaving is a dying art in most parts of North America. Via/ State Archives of Florida

What Is Folk Art?

While a modern block print fabric from India is just as much a piece of folk art as a 19th century paper cut-out profile or a handmade decoy duck, there are some defining factors to each that make them unique. Sometimes these items will also be called primitive art, as the techniques utilized unusual materials or inconsistent techniques.

While we might assume that anything homemade could be defined as folk art, that isn’t always the case. Items of folk art are often made entirely by hand, but will not only reference the process, but also the tradition behind the style. For instance, many folk artists will stick to patterns and shapes that have been commonly made by people in their family, trade, or area for generations. Thus, each piece has a style that links it to previous works of art.

Unlike fine artists, who receive training in techniques and materials that enable them to make professional quality works, many folk artists work in styles that arose within a lack of resources, such as handmade baskets which use only wild grasses and cost nothing, but time.

Wiki Commons

Tramp art is a variety of folk art that utilizes cigar boxes and match sticks as they were readily available on the cheap. Pieces like these were most often not made by tramps at all. Via/ Wiki Commons

There is a school of thought which places the rise of folk art at the center of the industrial revolution, with artists producing works to copy mass-produced items and consumers becoming accustomed to decorations of every ilk due to widespread mechanization.

What Are Some Defining Characteristics of Folk Art?

Folk art pieces tend not to stick to a rigid set of defining factors. Often never formally educated in fine art, many folk art creators will lack consistency, as the hand-made nature of these works is not only a source of pride, but also an outlet for unique expression. Sometimes the form is mainly about self-expression, as in the case of crazy quilts or African American improvisational quilts.

Missouri Historical Society

Crazy quilts were initially inspired by the crazed Japanese ceramics shown at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Via/ Missouri Historical Society

Today, untrained yet successful artists’ works are often referred to as outsider art, and there is some crossover here with folk art. But, outsider art does not always have a link to traditional techniques or themes, thus removing it one more step from true folk art.

Collecting Folk Art Today

When collecting antique American folk art, one of the most popular areas of the genre, you should always look for signs of how the item was made. You should be able to discern some defining features of a handmade product such as paint marks or slightly irregular stitches.

Wiki Commons

The antique hand-painted designs of the Pennsylvania Dutch are some of the most-copied forms of folk art in the U.S. Via/ Wiki Commons

Since many forms of folk art have been copied, often by artists or companies who are not based in the U.S., it’s important to understand some of the history behind how these items were made over the centuries. An informed eye will go a long way towards successfully identifying genuine pieces of antique folk art. With some research you can effectively tell regional crafts apart from items made on an assembly line.

Of course, indications of age are always a welcome sign as some of the reproductions and fakes circulating today have all the hallmarks of being handmade because they are. Items that are made in an old-fashioned style, but which show no signs of wear will instantly raise the red flag for collectors.

Click “Next Page” to find out the real purpose behind antique samplers!

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