Finding Folk Art: A Communion of Meaning

The ghosts of folk art cast a long shadow at “Folk Fest” ( ) made longer by the lack of a deep bench of compelling new work.  The artists with the most distinctive newer works, Missionary Mary Proctor and Cornbread, have works around virtually every corner, and like them as I do (I own nice examples from each), there are only so many powerful, strong-willed women leaning back or foxes with giant eyes for which one can find room. I wanted to find something new—at least to go home with a couple of names to watch, but instead the things that drew most of my attention were already familiar.  The big names of folk/visionary art, long ago now passed, were the strongest presence at Folk Fest at the North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross this weekend.  I arrived ready to spend hours, yet I was headed back home much sooner.
Missionary Mary Proctor
          People wanting to find kitschy pieces—with pithy quotations written in tight script—fared better than I did.  There was indeed much to look at, much of it well-executed craft work—the man who makes realistic looking clothes out of old pieces of tin roof is impressive, and much of the work was cute—so many bird and dog and cat paintings, so little time!  There was another category of art that seemed very professional as if these particular artists’ work was better suited for more standard art galleries.  I liked some of these pieces a great deal, and had I had an extra couple of thousand dollars, I might have sprung for something.  In the end, though, I found myself noticing how many things would look nice on my daughter’s bathroom wall.  I walked away empty handed except for a nice t-shirt handed out with the price of admission.
          I have never seen a definition of folk art/visionary art/outsider art that has helped me understand exactly what it is and isn’t. While this lack of a cohesive definition does not bother me, I found myself more and more searching in vein for a distinctive voice in and amongst the cacophony of booths full of primary colors and muted pastels. On the way home I thought about how one is not likely to find such a distinctive voice where the environment is so clearly artificial, and even if that voice is there, I am not sure I would be in the frame of mind to see it in that setting.
          So where does one find folk art, if not at an event called “Folk Fest”?  As in so many other things I believe the answer lies in developing relationships with people and places from which we create our own definitions and our own way of seeing(I wrote another blog recently about photography as a way of seeing the world ).  I can trace my fascination with folk art, specifically outsider folk art, to the poet and essayist Jonathan Williams ( .  I met Williams only two or three times; however, a visit to his home near Highlands, NC one spring around ten years ago sparked my interest.  Williams, who had a life-long devotion to things strange and off the beaten path, had an extraordinary and eclectic collection of vintage photographs, Chinese porcelain, rare books, and most salient here, outsider folk art and Georgia folk pottery.  Lanier Meaders face vessels sat side by side by side under tables, while Howard Finster master works lined the walls, along with numerous works by Mose Toliver, James Harold Jennings, R.A. Miller, and Richard Burnside.  Jonathan had written a book about an Outsider Artist, St. EOM ( ), which we discussed over a scotch, and after getting a copy of it from him, to my lasting regret I neglected to ask him to sign it.  When reflecting on the chance to meet such a rare thinker, scholar, and collector as Jonathan Williams, I find that what sticks with me is that he ruggedly and attentively sought out the unique voices that challenged and expanded his own and that matched his sense of independence.  This strikes me as a very American way of approaching collecting.  I also noted that the value he placed in the work was a direct result of knowing, respecting, and caring about the people who created it.
Jonathan Williams (circa 1985)
Lanier Meaders Face Jug
          Meeting someone who had earnestly and assertively built a collection that represented the world he chose to live in was a revelatory for me.  I left his house intrigued in particular, however, by the face pottery.  It was ugly and disquieting stuff, and it was equally compelling.  These Meaders pieces seemed to come out of the same “dark wood” that Cormac McCarthy evoked to such sustained and horrifying effect in his early works set in the Southern Appalachian chain.  My interest in folk pottery began that day and led to my passion for the Catawba Valley pottery of North Carolina.
Burlon Craig
Burlon Craig Face Jug


          Burlon Craig of Vale, NC was inspiration for a number of the Catawba Valley potters who are still at work using traditional methods, including using large wood-burning ground hog kilns.  There are four potters in particular that caught my attention and have sustained it in the years since I first went to a kiln opening: Charles Lisk, Steve Abee, Joe Rhinehardt, and Kim Ellington.  Much has been written about this group of potters ( ) though I would argue they are still underappreciated.  Beyond the vessels themselves, what draws me is that everything about the way one gets a piece represents a closer intimacy between the potter and the buyer than is possible in a shop or event such as “Folk Fest” (even though many artists were present on Friday night).  These potters each have kiln openings three to five times a year at their homes.  Describing a kiln opening in full warrants another blog entry; however, what is relevant here is that these events, feel like a reunions.  They are dependent on relationships, and, rife with ritual and welcoming to newcomers, something about them is inherently atavistic.
          Next year at this time, I will head back out to “Folk Fest”—I maintain hope that one day I will see something there that makes the trip through Atlanta traffic on Friday evening more than worth it.  I will  go to the Slotin Folk Art Auction as well; the next one is in November… . However, I will also go forward with a renewed sense that there are not short cuts in finding the sort of pieces that have come to mean a great deal to me.  What I see in the art is immersed in where it is to be found, in the research I have done to learn more, in the journey to get it, in the people I traveled with to get there, and in the conversation I might be lucky enough to have with the person who creates it.  In my teaching of poetry I often talk about how poetry is about partnership between poet and reader—that what we as readers bring to the table and what the poet brings creates a communion of meaning.  I have been a bit slow to recognize that the same general truth applies to the relationship of artist and viewer.