Lessons from folk art, part 1

I am on the road for the first week of July, so I'm revamping a blog post I wrote on my personal blog about my encounter with the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe during a cross-country trip I took with my lovely first wife a few years ago.  Enjoy!

If you are ever in Santa Fe, the absolute must-see is not necessarily the Georgia O'Keefe museum.  For my money, it's the Museum of International Folk Art up on Museum Hill.

Inside, the bulk of the museum is taken up by the Girard Wing.

Click to embiggen.

But, you will say, that looks like a Walmart, not a museum.  You would  be wrong.  Alexander Girard and his wife collected folk art.  This is not their collection.  This is one-tenth of their collection.  This is just an exhibit of that tenth.

It is absolutely overwhelming.  Skip the Georgia O’Keefe Museum if you have to, but do not miss this museum.  The mind boggles at the sheer volume of human artistic expression.

Pay attention.  We have a lot to work through here.

The first idea you should take away from here is that anyone who says that art is a frill and students don’t need to be wasting time on it should be taken out back of the Capitol and shot.  Publicly.  (Maybe CNN could get better ratings that way if C-SPAN doesn’t beat them to it.)

It is clear from this collection that creating stuff, making stuff, is just part of us.  We cannot help it.  From the simplest materials, whatever is at hand, people will create objects which have meaning.  Often that meaning is religious; over two-thirds of the items in the exhibit are specifically religious, mostly Christian but certainly not all.  Sometimes the objects are for entertainment; a lot of puppets and dolls and scenes.  Often the objects are functional, and sometimes the objects are just pretty.

Not all the objects are made by unsophisticated artists.  There are a great many commercially produced items from the 18th and 19th centuries, dolls and doll house items, for example. Those did not hold my attention, however, as much as the hand-made-by-hand items.

I have a few random photos, snapped after I realized we were permitted to photograph the exhibit and I zipped back through trying to document the pieces that really stuck out.  Not enough, alas.  And they did not have a big heavy book covering the exhibit in the gift shop.

So let’s start here:

Jaguar, clay.  Here is one of the facets of the exhibit.  You’ll be walking along, fascinated by the cases and cases of objects, and then you’ll remember to look up, and there is entirely other exhibit going on over your head.


In the corner of an enormous circus display, we find this rabbit tamer.  These scenes are mostly patched together from disparate items in the Girard’s collection—although there are a couple of gargantuan scenes with every item done by the same folk artist—and so whether the clown actually came with the rabbits is an open question.  Nevertheless, it’s charming and more than a little bit creepy.

One thing that will strike you about the objects is how very very powerfully modern they are.  Look at this:

Terrible photo, but the reflections were unavoidable.  If you saw this without any context, you would be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a painting from a gallery over on Canyon Road.  It is beyond sophisticated in its design.

But it’s a hunter’s jacket.  The bow-tie-shaped white space is the hole for your head.  Close up, in the upper lefthand corner, there is actually a pocket.

Close up, it’s even more sophisticated.  The fabric is the brown; the black is dye.  The rings look as if they’ve been double-stamped, with a slight registration problem, that is, dimmer gray circles can be seen just off kilter with the black.

Here’s another textile:

I cannot remember what this was, functionally.  It’s embroidered.  Seriously, people, artists have to go to SCAD to get this sophisticated in their approach to materials and design.

How about this:

You’ll notice it’s part of a parade of iron pieces.

Another textile:

This one is from Peru.  Look closely at it.

Now look at the closeup:

The whole thing is hand-stitched.  Keep looking at it.  Really, just keep looking at it.

Now remember that this is just one item out of an entire Walmart of items just like it.

Idea #1: Humans are born to Make the Thing That Is Not.

Next up: And...?