Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector's Guide

Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector's Guide

by Chuck Rosenak, Jan Rosenak
     
 

With the rising popularity of contemporary folk art, collectors have been asking, Who are the artists? Where are they located? Where can I see their art? How can I buy their work? And how much does it cost?

This wonderfully illustrated guidebook offers answers to these questions and much more. The authors, passionate collectors of contemporary American folk art

Overview

With the rising popularity of contemporary folk art, collectors have been asking, Who are the artists? Where are they located? Where can I see their art? How can I buy their work? And how much does it cost?

This wonderfully illustrated guidebook offers answers to these questions and much more. The authors, passionate collectors of contemporary American folk art for more than two decades, have traveled widely throughout rural and urban America, searching out artists, collecting extraordinary pictures, sculptures, and objects, and gathering information. Their highly informative text, organized by region, features 181 biographies of both new and established artists and includes tips about how to evaluate the art. The book is illustrated with color photos of more than 155 works as well as forty-four black-and-white pictures of the artists. Of special value are the extensive listings of galleries and museums where the best folk art being created today may be viewed.

Supplementing the text are essays by Lee Kogan of the Museum of American Folk Art and by Nancy Druckman of Sotheby's. Regional maps, a bibliography, and a price guide round out this indispensable reference book.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Seasoned collectors and recognized experts, the Rosenaks (The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Folk Art, Abbeville, 1991) have created this survey of 181 artists grouped in six regions. Entries on artists include biographical notes, collection tips, and lists of museums and galleries where one can see and buy their art. Included in each regional chapter is a selection of color plates and a museum and gallery guide. Following this main section of the book are essays concerning the evaluation, buying, and selling of folk art works and contemporary folk art at auction. This handy travel guide to collecting contemporary folk art will be of interest to collectors with big and small pocketbooks alike. For public libraries.Judith Yankielun Lind, Roseland Free P.L., N.J.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781558598973
Publisher:
Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/28/1996
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

In the late 1980s, many in our generation—ourselves among them—experienced a lessening of interest in the academic art of Europe and America. As we turned away, however, we found a growing response within ourselves to the richly diverse folk art of our native land, art engendered within a broad range of social and economic circumstances, and art that underscored the meaning of the American experience. We began to realize that, after all, academic theoreticians can advance the arts only so far; after a time great thoughts bore us, and we say to ourselves, "Ho for the adventure of discovery. Ho for dirt-track America. It will restore us."

This volume is a compilation and distillation of the experiences we have had, the lessons we have learned, the artists we have met, and the art that has now become an integral part of our lives. Although Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collectors Guide is intended for use by collectors in their travels—as a help in locating works to enhance their collections—it is also our intention that this book should be more than a guide for the acquisition of art. The choice of artists in the book is to some extent subjective, but it is our hope that the artists within its pages will, when placed in a historical context, collectively help to define the best in contemporary art under the umbrella term "folk art."

Contemporary American folk art is the collective voice of the genius of our land, a mirror of the soul of America. As W. B. Yeats said, "It is the soil where all great art is rooted." It comes from the hills of Tennessee, the delta of the Mississippi, Window Rock on the Navajo Nation, the often-unfriendly projects in our otherwise great cities—and it even reaches the spotlighted white walls of Madison Avenue, where it joins the parade of art of our time. Contemporary folk art is no longer a secret—suddenly it has become a recognized part of the American art scene. But because recognition of contemporary folk art by a large audience is relatively new, people ask: Who are the artists? Where are the artists? How can I find them and buy their work? Our adventures in dirt-track America over the past several decades have provided answers to these questions, and these answers are what we wish to share here—and in the process, we hope, help others in their quest to discover the new, the innovative, the wonderful, in the folk art of America today.

On Being Collectors

In the latter part of the 1970s, we got a call from the Washington Post informing us that they would like to send a photographer to our home to do a story on folk art collectors. "Gee!" we said. "Gosh! We must be collectors!"

For us, collecting happened by accident. For our own pleasure, we had been buying one work of art at a time since the late 1950s—pieces that we felt we couldn't live without. The term "collector" was reserved, we thought, for people like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Mellons—not us. (And speaking of the Mellons, I actually did meet Paul Mellon once in the 1960s. We were both bringing crates of art from Europe through customs at National Airport in Washington, and he asked to see the Millares we had just purchased in Spain. He then proffered advice to me on how to build a collection: "Young man," he said, "I never spent less than one million a year on art, and I have never regretted it." Unfortunately, not very helpful advice for two young government lawyers!)

Another time, I overheard Joseph Hirshhorn giving advice to a collector. He said, "I can tell in ten seconds if a work of art is well made, but it takes much longer to know if it is important"—well-meaning advice, perhaps, but not necessarily helpful for the folk art collector; "well made" is often not a criterion of particular meaning or importance!

It is almost impossible for one collector to tell another the "hows" and "whys" of building a collection; each person must find his or her own direction. But remember—the first purchase is the hardest!

Building a Folk Art Collection

The art world moves fast—artists reputations are sometimes established (or lost) overnight. Six years ago there were fewer than ten museums in America competing to build collections of the very finest of contemporary twentieth-century folk art; today we list more than fifty, and the number is still growing. Six years ago we knew all of the major collectors and dealers. Now it is almost impossible to keep up with the ever-expanding art scene.

Collectors have an important role to play in the art scene. Collectors are usually the ones who make the initial judgment decisions on whether this artist is important, that one is not. And quite often collectors are responsible for preserving the contemporary art of our day. When I first visited Howard Finster's Paradise Garden in 1977, he believed that the Lord would protect his art—nailed to boards, outdoors in the humid Georgia weather—in situ. Later, when he spoke at the Philadelphia Art Alliance on the occasion of the opening of his first major retrospective, "Howard Finster: Man of Visions—the Garden and Other Creations" (1984), his eyes watered at the sight of the early pieces of his that we had bought. "Brother Chuck," he said. "Thank you for saving the Lords work."

If you don't have large resources—we never did—being "there" at the right time, whether it's a first one-person show in New York, a weavers hogan, or a project apartment, always gives the collector a leg up. Being there, however, requires information, and information always gives the astute collector an edge. Each collector must first define the parameters of the material that he or she is collecting (and collecting can be done at any level, from museum masterpieces to mementos of a trip and everything in between). Then a collector should become knowledgeable about what has gone before (for example, by seeing folk art in museums and reading about the genre). And finally, a collector should buy the best material available within budget limitations.

Most folk art collectors have become hooked on the material because it does speak directly to them about our roots and our regional and ethnic ties to the land we love. Most folk art collectors only buy what they love. Most folk art collectors try to learn as much as they can about the art and the artists. This learning process is what we call "honing the eye." A collection can, in the hands of a person whose eye is not honed, become nondirected—merely stamps on a wall waiting to be sorted by someone else. A collection need not be large to be good; quantity rarely replaces quality, and five really great works can capture the eye and the imagination where five hundred mediocre pieces become just clutter.

Every collection should have its own unique characteristics, shaped by the collectors eye. We have collected art from every region in America, but that type of broad-band collecting is rare; most collections are centered around the art of a particular region, usually near hometowns or places frequently visited. In Chicago there are large collections of Lee Godie, Joseph Yoakum, and William Dawson; in Atlanta, it's Nellie Mae Rowe, Charlie Lucas, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth; in Columbus, Ohio, Elijah Pierce, William Hawkins, and Smoky Brown are widely collected. The choice is up to the collector, but the focus should be clear. The collection makes a statement about the collector, and the statement should be, "This is the best art of its kind; this is the best folk art of our time."

Knowing the Artist, Understanding the Art

The gallery scene, whether you are walking through Soho in New York, gallery hopping in Los Angeles, or discovering a gallery in Iowa City, is always exciting. It can be every bit as much fun as driving down a dirt track into a holler in Kentucky—and it doesn't even require a different wardrobe these days. For us, however, the real adventure—and personal restorative—is visiting the artist. We have also found that knowing as much as possible about an artist can help in making decisions about his or her work. We do not believe that any particular work of art contains "absolute qualities" that can be totally separated from the legend of is creator. For example, we once bought two of Ellis Ruleys' paintings from a dealer in Philadelphia who did not know or really care about the life of the artist. We paid about $400 for the pair and put it aside, thinking that some day we would "discover" Ellis Ruley. Glenn Smith beat us to it and wrote his book, Discovering Ellis Ruley, in 1993. Once the Ruley's story was known—Ruley, a black man who married a white woman, was possibly murdered alongside a rural road in Norwich, Connecticut—that same dealer called us and offered to buy the pair back at many times its original cost. (We understand that today several galleries have waiting lists of customers hoping to find a Ruley.) Folk artists are not anonymous; their dreams, hopes, visions, and lives are their legacy, and when they make art, it is part of that art and its value.

We also visit the artists to photograph, record, and preserve their stories and to determine for ourselves that their art falls within our definition of folk art—that is, that it is self-taught (although the underlying craft may be learned) and that it comes from the soul of the artist and is not inspired by some other source.

In 1993 we purchased two paintings on board signed simply "Joe M." from a respected dealer. "Frankly," he informed us, "I know nothing about the artist, except that Ive been told that he lives in a trailer, decorated with similar paintings, on an island off the coast of South Carolina." Had the dealer discovered another Sam Doyle? We were curious and determined to find out for ourselves.

Jan managed to track down Joe M. (don't ask me how she did it, but Americans can be located). He lived on an island off the coast of South Carolina all right, and we visited him. Joe M.s decorated trailer was one of those wooden-sided affairs that are pulled behind oversize lawn tractors. This particular lawn tractor belonged to a retired officer of a large company who was painting under the pseudonym "Joe M." as a hobby. Our paintings turned out to be what we call "faux folk art"; they were not from the soul of the artist—Joe M. was certainly no Sam Doyle! Money and pictures were traded back all around.

Empty-handed adventures come with the territory, but memories of good times and encounters with artists far outweigh the bad and help to open a window on the source of an artists genius. The good times are what keep us going. We do not become a part of an artists life in a day-by-day sense (this can only be done when an artist lives close enough for frequent visits), but sometimes we are able to help. We have found gallery representation for some artists, and through our writings have been able to bring others to the attention of a broader audience. We all look for idiosyncratic elements in art (music, literature, theater, whatever)—that is, after all, what sets one work apart from another—and idiosyncratic elements in folk art sometimes come from the life of the artist. Knowing the artist helps us to gain a better understanding of the art.

One fall evening, after Jan and I had eaten well at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago, we came upon Lee Godie sleeping on a grate in front of a savings and loan association on Michigan Avenue. Carried away by the excitement of the moment, I burst out, "Lee! Have you any pictures for sale?"

Godies reply was sharp and rebuffing: "Cant you see Im sleeping? You can buy me breakfast tomorrow at the Burger King." She went back to sleep, but sleep came hard to me that night. During the late hours of the night, I finally realized that the literature on the artist was wrong; Godie was not "a homeless waif," as often described. She was at home by choice on the streets of Chicago, and I was the outsider who had intruded upon her rest.

At 7:00 A.M. the next morning, Godie appeared at the Burger King full of schemes. She produced some cheap cameos from somewhere under the many layers of clothing she customarily wore. "Jan," she said (she wasn't going to talk to me that day), "they sell these at Marshall Field [an elegant Chicago department store] for a lot of money, but they won't do business with me. You sell em, and Ill split fifty-fifty with you." And I was further punished for my transgressions—there were no paintings for sale that morning.

The Reverend Howard Finster baptized me, but he was never sure that it "took." On each of our subsequent visits to the artist, Finster has given me a sermon on one topic or another. At our last meeting, Finsters sermon was his unique version of evolution. "Apes, Brother Chuck," he said, "are descendants of the dumb folks who can neither read nor write nor do numbers. We are not descendants of apes—no sir!" After my sermon, I said, "Howard, you will always be my pastor," and he replied, "Brother Chuck, you will always be a member of my flock." Such moments as these are treasured, expanding our relationship both with the artist and with his art, and we have been lucky to have had many such moments.

With a little effort other collectors can have such treasured moments too, but perhaps as important is the opportunity for every collector to also make a contribution to knowledge and understanding of the field through what Jan and I call "investigative study." A revival of interest in contemporary American folk art began in the 1970s and has grown steadily throughout the 1980s and into this decade. Our knowledge of contemporary folk art is still so young that exact definitions of terms are continuing to evolve, and every region of this country, whether urban or remote, is ripe for further exploration. Lucky are the risk takers who explore their regions, for they will find great art.

We were especially lucky in that regard. After moving to Santa Fe from the East Coast in the 1980s, we instantly recognized that taboo-defying innovations were taking place in the art of the Diné (the word the Navajo use to describe themselves). Traditional turquoise jewelry, rugs, and baskets were still being made, but artists like Mami Deschillie and Johnson Antonio were creating new art forms never seen by their people before. We did what we always have done and ventured onto the dirt tracks of this vast land (Dinétah, or homeland) of purple sunsets and geological formations beyond description. What we found was truly amazing—pottery, wooden carvings, cardboard collages, and surprisingly, unique pictorial rugs—artists were creating new art forms and adding their modern visions to old traditions. These innovative artists were, at least originally, ignored by most of the traditional Indian traders, and Jan and I had the opportunity of a lifetime, giving name to the contemporary and revolutionary art of the Diné. We wrote about the artists, photographed them, found gallery homes for their work, encouraged museum exhibitions, and published a book, The People Speak: Navajo Folk Art. We are convinced that every region of America has its own Dinétah, and we encourage our readers to go out and find it.

In the end, each generation must sing its own song. Great artists have genius—idiosyncrasies, vision, call it what you will—that helps them to express their unique view of the time and environment in which they live and helps us to understand the universality of what we call art. Each of us feels restored in the search for that universality, and, in some ways, it may be the search for great art that keeps us going.

At home, on our ridge in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we are surrounded by tangible memories of where we have been and whom we have met. The art on our walls reminds us of our adventures and, with a piñon-wood fire burning bittersweetly on a winter afternoon, I can sit in front of my computer, resting on a hundred-year-old mesquite table from Mexico, and spin stories of our collecting adventures. But after a while remembrances are not enough; the thought of new discoveries to be made and old friendships to be renewed hangs in the air, and we say once again, "Ho for dirt-track America, land that restores us when great thoughts bore us!"

Meet the Author

Chuck and Jan Rosenak are the authors of The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Folk Art and Artists and The People Speak: Navajo Folk Art. Their collection is displayed in their house and museum/annex in New Mexico.

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