Smudging the Edges: Folk Art Goes CommercialSmudging the Edges: Folk Art Goes Commercial

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by John Foster

Over a period of 20 years, American folk and self-taught art has gradually come into the mainstream, a reflection as well as a product of popular culture. Mainstream contemporary artists were among the first to appreciate the spontaneity, honesty, creative obsession and raw passion that distinguish the best folk art today. Academically trained artists -- notably Chicago painters Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown and Ray Yoshida -- collected the work of the self-taught and mined them for ideas and styles.

Like their counterparts in fine art, today's graphic illustrators are looking at folk art as a source of inspiration and a point of departure. Certain designers have used folk art to find their own forms of expression, while others have become enamored with the Elvis of popular art, Howard Finster, and ended up with weak copies or worse.

Noah Woods, 39, received a fine arts degree in illustration in 1986 from Art Center College in Los Angeles, where he still lives. Now represented by a New York agent, Woods is passionate about his interest in art. "I have a huge library, and I look at all kinds of things," he says. Several years ago, his work had a different look. "Even though my illustration was done by hand, it was too perfect," Woods says. "When an art director asked me what computer program I was using to make my art, I knew I had gone too far."

Woods began to find beauty in the imperfect. Working with found paper from discarded books, Woods fell in love with things that "had a past," he says. Sometimes he took this paper and emphasized its age and imperfections by soaking the paper in licorice root or weak coffee. Like many artists, trained or self-taught, the streets provide much of the raw material for his work. "I am constantly picking things up from the streets of L.A. that have been thrown away," he says.

Woods readily acknowledges his awareness of folk and outsider art. The flat images of Woods' collaged paintings exude a certain sophistication that weaves in and out of a visionary world. According to Woods, the late artist Keith Haring said, "The more we move into a technological age, the more we hunger for the human touch."

Commercial illustrator Stefano Vitale, an Italian-American living in Long Island, N.Y., was an economics major in college when he was overcome by a desire to make art. After studying as a painter, he traveled throughout Mexico and the American Southwest. Vitale says the santero artists had the most influence on his style of illustration; his work became more raw and expressive. "I have studied the work of folk artists all over the world and have found that different cultures share similar iconography, especially in their graphic patterns," he says.

Like Noah Woods, Vitale likes to paint on found objects. "Wood is my favorite support. There is an ancient quality to wood. It has wisdom and age. People have been using wood to make objects for thousands of years. Sometimes I even hate to paint on it for fear I may spoil it," he says.

Vitale's illustrations appear frequently in magazine advertisements throughout the United States. His advertisement for Absolut Vodka shows the folk art influence as does the cover illustration he did for Time magazine. Vitale says that he is drawn to folk art because it is "honest, sincere and spontaneous."

Amy Brown and her husband David Butler are the owners of Art of the Midwest, a graphic design and illustration firm in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Brown, a former illustrator at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., lives and breathes the folk art tradition. "Most of our house is furnished with flea-market finds," she says. "We have dozens of thrift-store paintings, whirligigs and antiques that we love."

As an article in the September 1999 issue of Country Living magazine attests, the couple's home is a showpiece of flea-market charm."There is soul and spirit in old things," Brown says, "and putting them together is fun."

This spirit of collecting and their knowledge of folk art influences Brown and Butler's style of illustration. "We visited Finster's garden back in 1994," recalls Brown. "We sent Howard a work of art that we had done, and, years later when we returned, we were happy to see that Howard had hung the artwork in his home."

Readers of Raw Vision magazine, avid museum goers and university-trained, Brown and Butler are obviously fans of this work. While Browns' style closely resembles that of Howard Finster, she says her work addresses a different audience. "We do product development, marketing and branding, and the folk art look is what we like best. Folk art is genuine and heartfelt." The couple has taken inspiration from Finster and gone beyond to incorporate what they enjoy into a commercial application.

But the Howard Finster clone of them all is Yee-Haw Industries in Knoxville, Tenn. Julie Belcher, 35, and Kevin Bradley, 36, the driving forces behind Yee-Haw, milk the pseudo-folk look for all it's worth. They use traditional letterpress printing to create their designs and have done much to revive a dying craft by preserving numerous vintage printing presses and wood letter-type. However, their imagery runs amok though the work of Howard Finster and the late Rev. Benjamin F. Perkins of Fayette, Ala., often trivializing and diluting the artists' once-unique visions.

On the other hand, Finster's work could hardly be more diluted than it is already. With his family selling T-shirts, coffee mugs, videos and cheap prints and hawking their own Finster-derived cutouts for the tourist trade, serious collectors now see an over-commercialization of the prolific master's art.

Yee-Haw owners Belcher and Bradley are graduates in graphic design from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Bradley spent several years painting and trying to develop a style of illustration with which he felt comfortable. He describes the pair's work now as a "hybrid of folk art, sign painting, old sideshow posters and tongue-in-cheek humor."

Bradley adds, "Even though I was trained to use a computer in school, I pretty much decided to go low-tech. I realized that I have always loved things that are made by hand."

The couple said they started their business three years ago in a barn in Belcher's back yard. "Now, when we are not at our 9000 square-foot studio in Knoxville producing posters and prints, we are on the road giving lectures to university students." At a recent lecture, students lined up to buy their funky, Finsteresque posters, Bradley says.

Bradley has visited the homes of folk artists R.A. Miller and Lonnie Holley as well as Finster's. "I remember Finster's Paradise Garden as being really cool, and I went away thinking that someday I would like to buy some land and take about 10 years to build an environment myself," he said.

Where will this folk-art-trickle-down leave us? It can't be a good place. Like most things in this country, once enough people catch on to something, it isn't long until it is being mass produced. How far are we from a McDonald's bag with a Howard Finster painting reproduced on it or a Martin Ramirez scarf? (A Bill Traylor scarf already exists.) If you don't own a real Finster painting, you can get a poster from Yee-Haw. And if you don't want the sermon and just want the smile, Yee-Haw, like it says on their Web site, "has you covered like a fat lady on a slop jar."


JOHN FOSTER, is an artist, graphic designer and the curator of Accidental Mysteries, a blog and traveling exhibition of vernacular photography.


As seen in:

[#50] Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer 2000

[#50] Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer 2000

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