Because many folk artists were laborers who interacted with nature on a daily basis, their paintings, sculptures, and other objects frequently display a strong connection with the animal kingdom. These pieces were generally made by hand for domestic use, and featured animal figures drawn from life experiences or cultural traditions. Animals appear in all forms of folk art, from decorative, but functional, household objects to “naïve” works of art.
Beyond the painted depictions of farm animals and country life, some folk art works focus on creatures as their primary subject. Highly ornate ink-and-watercolor images of birds were popular household ornaments, along with portraits of deer, bears, bison, and even exotic wild beasts. Crafts executed specifically by women, like embroidery or paper cutouts, regularly focused on animals and nature as symbols of comfort and abundance. Quilts also frequently incorporated animal imagery, as with Harriet Powers’ “Creation of the Animals” quilt of 1886, which features iconic bible scenes filled with wild creatures. Others such as the famous “Bird of Paradise” quilt from the 1850s relied on the symbolic associations we give to common creatures like owls and peacocks.
In addition to items of domestic ornament, animal imagery was commonly used to beautify utilitarian objects, like stoneware pottery, grandfather clocks, rocking chairs, trunks, and other types of furniture. Some functional objects were actually shaped like animals, giving rise to cat boot scrapers, crocodile nutcrackers, mill-weights resembling farm animals, frog-shaped pipes, cast-iron bird doorstops, dog’s head inkwells, and piggy banks.
The close relationship between human and horse has inspired many craft representations, from ancient Chinese jade horses to the colorful wooden Dala horses made in Sweden. During the 18th and 19th centuries, horses were essential to modern life, a fact reflected in their frequent appearance in all styles of folk art. There are intricately carved carousel horses, miniature equine models accompanying toy soldiers, racing horse whirligigs, rocking horses, and horse-head shaped hitching posts.
During this era, sculptures of animals were also widely used outside the home as decorative weathervanes or business signage. Beautiful copper renderings of leaping stags, charging stallions, or stoic roosters often topped weathervanes, though many versions were more cheaply produced in wood. Figural signs, like the wooden fish sculptures appearing above fish markets in seaside towns, provided a quick visual way to advertise a product, particularly in an era when many citizens could not read.
Decoys and lures fall into another classic folk-art genre, encompassing a variety of objects made to mimic a wild creature to aid in hunting or fishing. The most collected form of these handcrafts are duck decoys, which were adopted from the Native American practice and widely produced in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most desirable decoys tend to be highly realistic pieces made from solid wood, with natural looking feathers and heads.
Traditionally, indigenous communities created many objects in animal form to represent spiritual beings, like carved totems or ritual costume masks. Particularly collectible are the huge, complex masks created by Native American people living along the northwestern coast of the United States, which combined painted wood, fabric, and feathers to reference each clan’s animal ancestors.