By Kim Robson
Folk art can be defined as ethnic or regional art produced by peasants, laborers, or indigenous cultures. Unlike fine art, typically made by professional artists, folk art is more utilitarian or decorative, and often reflects the community from which it comes, whether the theme is ethnic, tribal, religious, occupational, geographic, or age- or gender-based. Often simple and naïve in style, ignoring conventions like perspective and proportion, folk art has been around as long as humans have been here. In fact, 25,000 year-old cave paintings are mankind’s first artworks.
Folk art strengthens ethnic and cultural identities by sharing values and community. Materials come from whatever happens to be handy and abundant: cloth, wood, paper, glass, clay, metal, and much more. If traditional materials are unavailable, modern materials can be substituted, defining the culture in time as well. Folk artists are sometimes formally trained but more often learn their skills through apprenticeships or other informal community settings.
If you would like original art in your home but can’t begin to afford it, consider folk art. It’s widely available in all price ranges, adds texture and color, and makes an interesting conversation piece. Every example of folk art has a story behind it.
When I worked in downtown San Diego, there was a Pannikin coffeehouse on the ground floor of my building. The place was packed to the rafters with folk art from around the world. I fell in love with a life-sized, articulated, painted wooden Dia de los Muertos skeleton with a giant moth on his chest, from Oaxaca, Mexico. It cost $375 dollars, though, too much for my budget. For months, I’d go down there to get my coffee and admire the skeleton. Then one day, I got a $250 refund check from my insurance company, settling a two-year-old accident claim I’d long forgotten. Money from heaven! I bargained the price of the skeleton down to $350, therefore having to spend only $100 from my savings. Since he was made by the Zaldovar family in Oaxaca, I named him Senior Zaldovar. He sits in the living room, glaring at anyone who enters. Some visitors love him; others not so much. He holds onto a roll of two-dollar bills, and he borrows a hat because he looks SO bald without one.
Another piece of folk art I treasure is one I commissioned from a friend. I’d run across this image of the Hindu Trimurti in The Great Mother by Erich Neumann and was captivated by it. The sun represents Brahma (Creation), the tortoise is Vishnu (preservation), the burning skull is Shiva (transformation), and the lotus is Sophia (the Great Mother). Carl Jung writes: “The whole picture corresponds to the alchemical opus, the tortoise symbolizing the massa confusa, the skull the vas of transformation, and the flower the ‘self’ or wholeness.”
My friend was an accomplished embroiderer, so I asked if she could re-create the image in cloth for me. I blew up the two-inch-square black and white image to 11” square, and assigned colors. My friend used only scraps and, after a month’s work, asked me only $50 dollars for it, refusing to take more. She also made it double-sided, with an opening at the bottom, so it can be a pillowcase. The workmanship is too good for that, though, so I had it mounted and shadowboxed. I love the colors, and it occupies a prominent place in my home. It has even more meaning for me because my friend died of cancer less than a year after making it. Here’s the finished product:
Collecting folk and ethnic art adds so much beauty and meaning to your home. By buying it, you’re likely supporting vibrant indigenous cultures that desperately need the income. In return, you get something regional, handmade, and totally unique — something that has a history behind it, both modern and ancient.