In the seventeenth century in the United States fine art and folk art had similar qualities—both were primitive, simple creations by untrained artists. As time went on, however . a distinction between the two began to emerge. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries artists with ambition studied abroad and came back to paint portraits of the elite families in American society. The less ambitious or less fortunate artists traveled around their own areas and created pictures of the rural society. Folk art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to be traditional to the familiar surrounding of the artists quilts, stitched samplers and figureheads were all very popular.
Around 1930 folk art began to take on a new meaning and an explosion of sorts evolved when an exhibition entitled, “American Primitivism” opened at the Newark Museum in Newark,, New Jersey. Holger Cahill, the museum’s curator, defined folk art as “ an expression of the common people and an expression of a small cultural class. Folk art usually has not to do with the fashionable art of its period. It is never the product of art movements, but comes out of craft traditions, plus that personal something of the rare craftsman who is an artist by nature if not by training. This art is based not on measurements or calculations but on feeling; and it rarely fits in with the standards of realism. It goes straight to the fundamentals of art, rhythm, design, balance, and proportion which the folk artist feels instinctively.”(3)
The period 1930-1960 was the time when folk artists began to receive recognition. They were the folks who often began their art careers late in life using art as an outlet for their energy. Their materials were cheap and simple, their subject matter and motivation differed, however, their creativity flowed and prospered. Doing their own thing became the norm. Perhaps what makes folk art so desirable is its freedom of expression. Even though it is hard to define folk art one fact remains certain—it touches us in a special way because the artist shows us how he or she brought beauty into their everyday lives. The common ground is the innate ability to imagine and create.
American folk art, as we know it, consists of the following: paintings either made with paint, pencil, ink, pastels, watercolors or chalk; sculptures which are usually three dimensional and made of wood, clay, stone, metals or marble; textiles which were spun on woven fabrics decorated with handwork; and household objects which were hand-crafted articles and utensils used in everyday life. Since folk artists come from all walks of life, each piece of art created is unique and one of a kind, emphasizing color, simplicity of line and bold, simple form. Most important, it exemplifies the history of American life.