Folk art can appeal in different and often unexpected ways, and I think that surprise element is what draws me to it most. That we don’t often know a lot about its imaginative makers adds to the intrigue.
A 20th century figure of a fish made from a bowling pin is a great example of the unexpected nature of folk art. The pin, which has clearly been used, shows the wear from the heavy contact it received from bowling balls over its years in its first life, has been altered to look like a fish, in much the way that a 19th century folk artist saw a tree root and fashioned a snake. A mouth has been sawn out of the bottom of the pin, a triangular piece of blue-painted sheet metal is inserted at the top of the pin, and two metal discs are standing in for eyes. Who knows why the creator saw what he or she saw, and who knows whether you as the beholder will see a bowling pin or a fish figure first, but that’s part of why folk art can be so appealing. This fish is whimsical, humorous, and compelling—born more of imagination than formal education.
Folk art isn’t always for hanging on the wall or putting on a shelf, either – the same whimsy and surprise can come from examples of regional furniture decoration, as in a few lots in this sale, especially a painted chest of four drawers likely made in Vermont. The chest is made somewhat simply of native poplar. Still, its surface is painted with a country artisan’s interpretation of exotic wood. Even the most twisted and gnarled early 19th century exotic wood grain wouldn’t be quite as exuberant as what emerged from this artist’s imagination. What results from the artist’s application of paint is, for the folk art collector, so much more than an imitation of exotic wood – it’s a style in its own right.
Unrecognized artists—be they furniture painters, graphic artists, or just astute observers who plumb the depths of their imagination to find or add to the beauty an ordinary object holds—often have a rare talent for color, design, and expression. If we could speak to them now, we’d tell them how much we appreciate them creating what they saw!