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Folk art

I took a class on Folklore at college. We focused primarily on modern or recent history folklore, so classes were filled with discussion about choking dobermans, spider-filled hairdos, and hook handed men menacing teenagers in cars. We examined where these stories originated and what purposes the retelling of them served. I was particularly fascinated by what folklore said about the society that created it. This was pre-internet, so our researches involved archives and librarians. The key element of folklore is that it is passed from person to person rather than through official informational paths. That batman song to the tune of Jingle Bells is classic folklore. Each generation of kids teaches it to the ones just younger, much to the chagrin of parents everywhere.

The class barely touched upon folk art. I suspect this is because the words “Folk Art” are generally used to describe the creations of pre-industrial people. My professor implied that folk art was dead and not worth studying. I knew he was wrong. I know people who make chain mail, leather work, baskets, and paper. Their methods are a mix of ancient and modern. They do this work, not because it is required, but because it brings them joy and decorates their lives. Then I thought further about people who make crafts which are less historical. These too are folk art. They are things created because the making of them adds joy to the life of the creator. Then sometimes to the lives of others as well.


This is a card that was given to me by a good friend. It is hand made using several pieces of paper, silk flowers, a stamp, faux jewels, and glitter. My friend could have just bought a card at the store, that’s what I do for notes. Instead she took the idea of an ordinary note card and spent an extraordinary amount of time making it beautiful.

Here is another one:

That flower is hand folded origami. This was given to me for my birthday last year. I’ve kept it primarily for the words written inside, but the outside is also a gift.

This one uses lots of embellishments:

I’m told that there is a group of women in my neighborhood who gather for card making nights. They buy supplies and instructions from a company, but the work is all done by their hands. While they create small beautiful things, they talk. I see no difference between this and the quilting bees of long ago. People have just streamlined the methods for teaching each other.

Look closely at this one:

The flower was stamped, then cut out. It was glued to another piece of paper with leaves stamped on it. That was in turn glued to a piece of paper and another. In all, this card has five layers of paper. The maker of this card would assure me that it was easy, no trouble at all. The difficulty is not the point, there is something wonderful about the way that people make things needlessly beautiful.

Some kind of a press was used to make the raised patterns on this card. The little circle dangles freely from the ribbon:

This card expresses the whole point:

These creations may not qualify as art by most definitions, but they each succeeded wonderfully at bringing joy to me and to the women who made them before they came into my hands. Adding beauty to the world is a good use of hands and time. I see these cards everywhere, being given woman to woman. They connect the ladies of my neighborhood and my town. I love it.

2 comments to Folk art

  • I’m an Art History major at BYU, and I’ve had a number of discussions relating to art and what we as a culture preference as art. Art historians tend to preference the art of avant-garde, contemporary artists (e.g. Damian Hirst, or for a modern artist, Jackson Pollock) who make millions selling their pieces at Christie’s and Southeby’s. When most people think of contemporary art, this is what they think of. On the other hand, most people who *own* contemporary art today tend to purchase popular art, such as pieces by Thomas Kinkade or Greg Olsen (at least in the LDS art market). But there are untold numbers of artists who participate in art without being a part of either of these–book cover artists, comic book artists, graphic designers, web designers, advertisers, film-makers, crafters, knitters, etc. These other artists are the “pottery makers” of today’s art–they create every-day objects that people use without thinking about the artistic qualities. Just as we didn’t consider the pottery of ancient cultures art until relatively recently, we don’t usually consider these forms high art. It’s an interesting look at what we privilege as art as opposed to what we use daily as art.

    • I went through Humanities at BYU and we covered some of the same ground in less detail. You’re right, a lot of art is dismissed as commercial or non-valuable. What I love is how the “pottery makers” take the time to make pretty pots even when ugly ones would be just as useful.