Friday, May 29, 2015

Folk Art and the Question of Age

I’ve been asked as of late to comment on various pieces of folk art in terms of their quality and value. I thought a summary of the points I made in my replies might make for a short series of worthwhile blog posts. So, here goes.
First of all, let’s deal with the notion of “age” and how age plays a role, or can play a role with dealers and collectors, in their appreciation and acquisition of folk art.
As the title indicates, John Fleming and Michael Rowan, in their most impressive book: Canadian Folk Art to 1950, do not include any works made after 1950. The rationale behind this date, in their opinion, is that after 1950 folk artists would have been influenced, to at least some extent, by mass media and the various images therein.  It’s a valid point, as certainly the majority of artists would have been exposed, to a greater or lesser extent, to various media outlets in the last quarter of the 20th century. 
Portion of envelope, written in the hand of Maud Lewis

However, I recall asking Mr. Rowan about it shortly after the book was published and he added the comment that given the sheer volume of material that confronted them, they had to pick some cut off date and 1950 seemed an appropriate one, for the reason noted above.
However, if one accepts this date and the position that post 1950 folk art is not pure folk art, or at least folk art uninfluenced by the media, then that eliminates artists, for example, like Maud Lewis and Joe Norris and many more.  The media would have influenced both these artists and countless others. But does that diminish what they created? Should that make them less desirable for collectors and dealers? 
"Fluffy" by Maud Lewis 1962
Selecting a cut off date is tricky business but Fleming and Rowan have a case for doing so. There’s no question that contemporary folk artists working in the last 50 years were subjected to the influences of modern media. 

One could also make the case that folk art has, to some degree, become an “industry” unto itself with all kinds of artists, both untrained folk artists and some academic artists, intentionally working in a folk art style.  It is often difficult to tell the difference. Both types of artists have enjoyed considerable commercial success.  In these circles, folk art, has become big business and collectors / customers are drawn to the works because they are colourful, naïve and often humourous.
Traditional folk art, that is folk art made before 1950 and often much earlier, is arguably in a league of its own. Age enhances the quality of a piece of folk art. With age, an object can be both an antique and art. That is a powerful combination for collectors and dealers. 
A good example would be utilitarian objects created for use around the home 150 years ago. This would include wall boxes, small containers and hand tools – objects similar to those depicted in the Fleming / Rowan book.  The age of these pieces make them interesting but their form and decoration transform them. They become folk art. Their function is secondary.
Grenfell Industries Hooked Mat c. 1940
So, for the collector, the point to take from all of this is to be mindful of the age of the objects that attract your attention. Chose a dividing line. The Fleming / Rowan date of 1950 is as a good as any. Or, you might choose one of your own. Be aware that objects created after that date are different in that the artists who created them came under the influence of modern society and mass media. You may let that fact influence what you collect or not. You may hold post 1950 artists to a higher standard. Dividing lines like these dates are helpful in that they define and categorize your collection. You’ll also see that “age” is a factor that dealers use in setting prices.
However, at the end of the day, it is the “folk art” image in the piece that transcends all other factors. When I examine a piece of folk art the image has to strike an emotional chord with me. I must be able to immediately respond, positively, to what the artist was trying to accomplish. If it does that I am not overly concerned about age, although to find a piece that combines age and excellent folk art is an added bonus.
The Author with wood carving by Charles Vollrath from Chalk River, ON c. 1930

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