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Everything Sucks Club: A Lesson On Early American Folk Art & Craft
How the emergence of the middle class in America after the Revolutionary War concluded in 1783 led to an entire genre of art.
Folk Art & Craft comes from any society’s different forms of visual arts as a response to its culture, customs, music, dance, or lore. It exists in every region around the world and is often found in and on very utilitarian (or everyday) objects. Folk Art tends to focus or classify things more in the traditional sense of paintings, drawings, clay/pottery, wood, paper, etc. While Folk Craft deals with objects like textiles/cloth, quilts, embroidery, furniture, baskets, and toys. Craft items can also include hand carved religious items like statues, talismans, or crosses - for example.
In the United States, American Folk Art got it’s start in the Colonial Period (1750’s) and then really started to expand after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). During the American Revolution, a lot of traditional artists left and went back to Europe. This left the United States with people who had immigrated from all over Europe in search of a better life, and then looking back on their own culture - pulled influences to create a new genre of folk art: American Folk Art.
At the same time in America, the rise of the middle class was happening. Free from England, The United States experienced its first large economic growth after the Revolutionary War. From this emerged the “merchant” or “artisan” business owner middle class. People who came from nothing but worked hard and their business thrived. Within a few decades there was no longer just a poor and wealthy class system but a group of people who comfortably sat in the middle.
These people, who still drive much of the economic talk in present times, are also primarily responsible for what Folk Art & Craft examples we have around in present day. These are the bulk group of people with disposable income of the time who needed to furnish homes larger than previous generations OR they/their family immigrated to the states with nothing more than a suitcase.
Folk Art and Craft items, even thought handmade, were relatively inexpensive and they were easy to attain. Just like today, you can go to a craft faire and pick up a couple pieces from a local artist you like. In the late 1700’s/early 1800’s in early forming cities, one could go down to the pottery shop or the print shop and buy a new piece from their favorite vendor. If they could sew or embroider - both common skills for women to learn - they could go to the fabric supply store and get materials to make their own wall art which would then be passed down though generations of the family.
Elements & Characteristics of Folk Art & Craft:
Handmade or is mostly handmade with new or recycled/upcycled elements
Not massed produced
Folk Art and Craft forms are often self taught skills or passed down knowledge from mentor
Decorative items, or might only be used in ceremonies
Utilitarian, might used daily
Could have been made with an intended purpose within a community (like a religious ceremony)
Does not have to be traditional visual art mediums - can and does include music, dance, written word, spoken word and poetry, can also be food related
Folk Art changes over time as individual cultures change with social issues and traditions
Terms that often overlap with Folk Art include “outsider art”, “traditional art”, and “primitive art”
“Well” Known Artists & Designers
The interesting thing about Folk artists in general is you’ve probably never heard them, especially the earlier in history you go. Yeah, some of the furniture markers, artists, and artisans that ended up becoming household names around the industrial revolution in the early 1900’s, sure, you know them. A lot of Folk Art & Craft is also largely unidentified - no matter what region or culture. Because so many items were just made at home particularly in the textile category for example. A quilt was made and used or gifted. Passed down to the next person. But because these are so well made, by hand - the sewing machine wasn’t around until the late 1800’s - they are still very well preserved in museums but we have lost the original makers of many to time. So here are some of my favorite examples from early American Folk Art:
Crewelwork Picture - Artist Unknown
Measuring about 7”x9”, this small piece was likely made by a young girl. Crewelwork is embroidery, but done with wool thread instead of cotton floss. The wool is much thicker which gives a more textured final look.
“Tree of Life” Whitework Quilt - Artist Unknown
Made using a process called “trapunto” or “stuffed work” - these designs are made on the surface of the quilt (either before or after the standard quilting process) using extra stuffing or cording. Tight stitching would be done on both sides of the stuffing to keep the raised design in place. Traditionally with a central medallion, a “tree of life” or fruit and flower theme.
Thomas Winsor Miniature Gold Locket Portrait
Measuring only 2.375 inches, the back is engraved with:
Born July 22nd 1780. Died March 12th 1832.
Painted when he was
17 years of age
by his brother in law
Dr. Rufus Hathaway
Not a lot is known about this very small portrait. Based on the birth and death date present I would assume this was a memorial piece. A date of 1797 is listed, which matches to Winsor being 17 years old, but he lived until he was 52. Obviously the engraving could have been added at a later date. It’s noted that the brother in law lived from 1770-1822.
Door from Cornelius Couwenhoven House
Why don’t we paint cool scenes on doors any more? There wasn’t really any additional information available on this door - I just thought it was cool.
Kayla (She/Her) is a queer artist and designer behind Tiny Werewolves. To receive new posts and support her work, consider becoming a free or paid Substack subscriber.
August’s Club Designs:
I’ve focused a lot on paintings and “flat” 2D art in my pieces this year. This month I looked more at the craft side and sculptural side of Folk Art. I’ve always had a general interest in a lot of the topics that are generally covered under “crafts” and more specifically the folk textiles category which includes crochet, embroidery, felting, knitting, lace-making, macrame, and quilting - to name a few.
I immediately knew that I wanted to pull that inspiration into the emojis for this month choosing to do some knit, cross stitched, and sewn (patched) inspired designs.
For August, I chose emojis that are fruit themed - watermelon (sticker), strawberry (magnet), peach (button), cherries & grapes (mini stickers).