Folk art is a catch-all term used to describe paintings, sculptures, and textiles produced by artisans and craftspeople with little or no formal training. Sometimes referred to as “naïve” or “outsider” art, folk art paintings often lack realism and techniques such as perspective, while folk art sculptures are formed from cheap, accessible materials like discarded wood.
In colonial and post-Revolutionary War America, folk art was also a vestige of old-country traditions. German immigrants in Pennsylvania were partial to decorative, boldly colored depictions of animals and floral motifs, recalling styles that were associated with the Rhineland. In contrast, New England portrait artists working during the same period favored the stilted, mannerist style of their native England.
That’s one of the wonderful, if occasionally confounding, characteristics of folk art—unlike other art styles or genres, you cannot sum up its look in 25 words or less. Even objects that deal with similar subject matter often appear to be worlds apart. For example, the devotional “retablos” painted by artists in the southwestern United States would never be mistaken for the equally devout paintings of Howard Finster and other religious, visionary artists in the southeast. More than most forms of art, folk art is a product of the people and places where it was produced.
In addition to decorated handmade furniture, religiously inspired paintings, and stiff portraits, another popular branch of folk art is known as tramp art. Most of these wooden boxes and frames were handmade by artisans who either needed an object for their own use or had made a piece for a family member—that probably explains the profusion of hearts on jewelry and sewing boxes. Though usually associated with wooden surfaces that have been notched and carved, tramp art came in a myriad of flavors, guided by the cultural roots and upbringing of their creators.
Other examples of folk art include carved wood or painted tin weathervanes, some featuring complicated and fanciful whirligigs; snakes or human figures whose limbs or torsos were made out of bottle caps; delicate samplers (used to teach young girls needleworking skills) depicting rural landscapes and letters of the alphabet; quilts blanketed in stars, triangles, and medallions; and duck decoys, which were carved by hunters and are especially prized today since so many of them were destroyed when lighter, plastic decoys came into vogue after World War II.