When the art world discovered Grandma Moses over 70 years ago, it struggled to avoid sounding patronizing about the simple images and colors of an elderly, untrained and slightly eccentric painter from rural New York state. It searched for a name to attach to what the artist herself called her “memory paintings,” but which dealers and curators variously called Visionary Art, Naïve Art and the fancy-sounding Art Brut. Whatever the name, the work was quaint, unsophisticated, lacking the intellectualism of abstract art or the technical virtuosity of the Impressionists. It was, the British art historian Roger Cardinal finally decreed, Outsider Art.
Ted Oliver, who with his wife Ann has been collecting folk art from throughout the south for over ten years, is out to prove that it’s not just Grandma Moses anymore. Oliver, proprietor of Oliver’s Southern Folk Art in Hendersonville, is curating this month’s major folk art exhibition at Tryon’s Upstairs Art Space, the second such show at the Upstairs after 2005’s well-received All Truth Rendered.
“We were amazed by the crowds and strong sales,” says Nancy Holmes, who chairs the exhibits committee at the gallery, of the earlier show. “A natural response to the art is, what’s not to like?”
But unlike the earlier show’s emphasis on sources and traditions of the genre, the new exhibit looks at where folk art is heading. “We want visitors to come away from the show with an appreciation of how folk art has evolved in the last 50 years,” Oliver explains. “There’s a stereotype of the folk artist as someone rural, poor, uneducated, and that’s still true to some extent. But many folk artists today no longer fit that pigeonhole. It’s a narrow view of the genre.”
One of the mold-breakers who will be exhibiting at the Tryon show is Asheville’s Gabriel Shaffer, a young artist with his own website whose work includes meticulously detailed cityscape collages on stretched box canvases. Another is 38-year-old Michael Banks who, far from being a rural recluse, was raised in a housing project in northern Alabama and has exhibited in New York, Denver and Atlanta. His mysterious, mask-like paintings on an undercoating of roofer’s tar will also be included in the Upstairs show. “A traditionalist would look at these two artists and not consider them folk artists,” Oliver says. “But today’s folk art can be as contemporary-looking as any other genre. It’s the visceral impact, the intuitive, instinctive power of the work that counts.”
Among the believers are Hendersonville collectors Harry and Joanne Sparshott, who had stopped by Oliver’s gallery to admire two recently acquired works by John “Cornbread” Anderson, known for his animal paintings inspired by his childhood on a farm in Lumpkin County, Georgia. The couple’s long association with folk art was a key aid in arranging the show in Tryon, for which Harry has served as a consultant. “We bought our first piece, a spinning wheel, over 40 years ago, for 48 dollars,” Sparshott says, noting that he and Joanne were attracted by contemporary art as well as traditional folk art. “We just don’t go by labels,’ Sparshott points out. “The important thing is if a work speaks to me on an emotional level.”
While folk art was long characterized by the modest price tags the works carried, major artists in the genre can now command respectable five figure sums at major exhibitions around the country as collectors and appraisers struggle with valuations. “That’s why you don’t see much folk art in major venues,” Oliver speculates. “They just don’t know how to value it yet. I remember visiting one artist some years ago who painted on sheets of tin that you could buy for 50 or a 100 dollars. Now they can fetch in the thousands.”
In a further sign of the growth in interest, there’s now a lively market in what Oliver called “make-believe folk art”, imitative work that may employ the unusual materials and techniques of folk art but which, Oliver believes, lacked the freedom of expression and natural talent for composition that distinguishes the genre. “If you sit down and decide you’re going to be a folk artist, you’re not a folk artist,” Oliver says.
An example of the innate, if unsophisticated, talent that makes genuine folk art so attractive is the work of Jim Gary Phillips, who had never painted before happening upon a collection of used kitchen cabinet doors at a warehouse and turning them into brilliantly colored observations of rural life, many with hand-lettered bible verses or country sayings. One shows a willowy woman in a purple and blue-dotted dress dancing underneath a fruit-bearing tree. “If you dont like my peachs, dont shake my tree,” says the inscription.
Also represented among the two hundred works in the Upstairs show will be some of folk art’s most famous names, another ironic development in a genre once characterized by its practitioners’ obscurity. The late Howard Finster, whose Bible-inspired paintings became famous after his associations with the rock groups R.E.M. and Talking Heads, will have works in the show, as will the late Jimmy Lee Sudduth, equally well-known for his mud paintings. The variety of media, subject matter and style is another sign that folk art has taken roads that Grandma Moses may never have imagined but of which, one likes to think, she would have heartily approved.