America's folk art masterpieces on display

Museums in St. Louis and Bentonville mount major exhibitions

by Leigh Elmore

Folk art enthusiasts have a bonanza on their hands this summer as two of the Midwest's major art museums have mounted impressive folk art exhibitions, both drawing from the permanent collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

'Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog' by Ammi Phillips, New York, 1830-1835, on dispay at the St. Louis Art Museum.

At the Saint Louis Art Museum, Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum opened in June and runs through Sept. 11. And in Bentonville, AR, American Made: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, runs through Sept. 19. Each exhibition contains American folk art masterpieces that stand out in all kinds of media: painting, sculpture, fabric art and others, all created by self-taught and sometimes anonymous artists.


Saint Louis Art Museum

The exhibition in St. Louis explores the continuum of American folk art and the concept of a "self-taught genius" through more than 100 works of art from the Revolutionary War to the present.
Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, told Discover Vintage America, "The strength of Self-Taught Genius comes in the rich diversity of the objects. With more than 100 objects, there is amazing needle work up along with singular paintings and found object artworks. In a sense the exhibit hints at what compels an artist to create – and it makes these works very human.


Flag Gate, unknown artist, New York c. 1876; paint on wood with iron and brass, also on display at SLAM.

"Everyone is compelled to give some sort of expression of what we feel inside," Wolfe said. "And the objects in this exhibition are some of the best representations of that urge." For example, she noted two duck decoys in the show, which she termed "spectacular," saying that there are thousands of hand-made duck decoys circulating in America. "But with these two, you can almost feel the maker's sensitivity coming through the carved figures."

Wolfe acknowledged that Self-Taught Genius has proved very popular with the public since it opened. "Folk art is very relatable. It appeals to many different communities. All the quilt people come and all the duck decoy people come too. And since the Saint Louis Art Museum does not actively collect folk art, this exhibition helps to augment our collection and serve the public."
Most of the artists represented in the St. Louis exhibit are known, but some are not, Wolfe said. "We know more of the artists than we don't," she said, insisting that all should be considered artists despite the lack of formal training.

Rocking Mary/Mr. Fool (double-sided), St. Helena Island, SC, c. 1983 by Sam Doyle (1906–1985); enamel house paint on corrugated roofing tin; 52 x 26 x ½ inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Elizabeth Ross Johnson, 1985.35.23. (photo by John Parnell, NY)

"One of the interesting points that the show examines is, unlike in Europe where there historically has been a finely defined 'academy' that artists need work within, in the U.S. for about 150 years, from colonial era onward, there really was not an academic structure that could offer the amount of patronage as in Europe. So in America, there is a blurring between trained and folk artists. Some of the portraits indicate that these were some of the best trained artists in their area. Even though the did it on their own. They are certainly artists."

Wolfe doesn't believe it matters if an artist has formal training or not. "There are paintings by fully trained artists that don't match the spark you'll see in the paintings here," she said
Paintings, works on paper, textiles, decorative arts and sculpture are presented within context of seven perspectives from which artists are compelled to create—achievers, encoders, messengers, improvement, reformers, ingenuity and guides.

Untitled, Hazlehurst, MS, 1976 by Mary T. Smith (1904/5–1995); paint on metal; 32 x 48 x ¼ inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Blanchard-Hill Collection, Gift of M. Anne Hill and Edward V. Blanchard Jr., 1998.10.4. (photo: Gavin Ashworth, NY)

"The groupings are more about being evocative," Wolfe said. "It's just a fresh way of looking at them. The mix gives us a way of thinking about how to relate these objects to ourselves and each other," Wolfe said. "And grouping by theme allows us to display a sampler next to a 1780s portrait and maybe find a common thread."

For example, Wolfe said, under the banner of "Improvement" artists depict their own refinements or achievements, or those attained by their subject. "Improvement is exemplified in 'Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog,' a portrait by Ammi Phillips that emphasizes the genteelness of the young, 19th-century sitter," she said.

Knife Grinder, probably New England, c. 1875; Artist unidentified; paint on tin; 13 ½ x 16 ¼ x 3 ½ inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York; Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.60. (photo: Gavin Ashworth)

"Knife Grinder," a 19th-century whirligig figure, captures the spirit of ingenuity, another of the show's categories. "By elaborating on a practice through mechanical or visual inventiveness, this unknown self-taught artist revealed an exceptional ingenuity," Wolfe said.

When Self-Taught Genius premiered at the American Folk Art Museum in 2014, the New York Times called it "enthralling" and "an intellectually provocative effort to rethink the nature of artistic creativity."

Subway Riders, New York City, 1950 by Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997); oil on canvas 28 x 60 inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Ralph and Eva Fasanella, 1995.8.1. (photo: Adam Reich)

Family Sundays in August complement the themes of Self-Taught Genius by celebrating a different artist each week whose work changed the art world. Families are invited to see work by groundbreaking artists in the museum's collection before unleashing their own creative genius with hands-on art activities that change each Sunday from 1-4 p.m.

Untitled by Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949); (Figures and Construction with Blue Border), Montgomery, Alabama, c. 1941; poster paint and pencil on cardboard; 15 1/2 x 8 inches; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon, 1991.34.1. (photo: John Parnell, New York)


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

In Bentonville, Made in America features more than 115 works of art including quilts, carvings, signs, samplers, weathervanes, whirligigs and more handmade objects by Americans when the nation was young.

Map Quilt,1886; Artist unidentified; Silk and cotton with silk embroidery; 78 3/4 × 82 ¼ in. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. C. David McLaughlin, 1987.1.1. (photo: Schecter Lee)

"We're excited for visitors to experience Crystal Bridges' first-ever folk art exhibition which provides a glimpse into early American life with these extraordinary objects," says Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Executive Director Rod Bigelow.

Objects in the exhibition were selected specifically for Crystal Bridges by the curators of the American Folk Art Museum. "We are dedicated to reaching new audiences and having them discover the beauty and power of folk art to testify, inspire, move, and inform from a perspective that is unique in American art," said Stacy C. Hollander, deputy director of the American Folk Art Museum.

Mrs. Keyser, ca. 1834; Artist unidentified, Watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper, in original frame covered with embossed paper with traces of gilt; 22 3/4 × 18 1/4 in.; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.9. (photo: American Folk Art Museum / Art Resource, NY)

American Made shares the story of early American culture and identity. Societal values, national symbols, and personal narratives are stitched together to showcase American creativity and resourcefulness, according to Mindy Besaw, Crystal Bridges curator. "The artworks in the exhibition demonstrate a high level of skill and help chronicle everyday life of early Americans, as well as themes of patriotism and politics," she said.

Artist unidentified; Papercut for Benj. S. Farret, 1848; Paint and ink on cut and pasted paper; 14 7/8 × 12 in.; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Cyril Irwin Nelson in loving memory of Jean Lipman, 2004.14.2. (photo: Gavin Ashworth)

The exceptional variety in materials, subject matter, and scale can be seen throughout American Made. A few examples include a set of 4-inch tall, delicately crafted paper figurines of horses and soldiers used as children's toys post-Revolutionary War; a sprawling 6 x 7-foot embroidered silk map quilt of the United States that creates a snapshot of the nation's geography in the late 1800s; and a weathervane featuring an 8-foot tall copper figure of the Delaware Indian leader, Tammany -- possibly the largest surviving American weathervane.

S.D. Plum Tavern Sign (double sided), 1813; Artist unidentified;
Paint on pine with iron; 51 × 34 × 3 in.; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.55. (photo: American Folk Art Museum, by John Bigelow Taylor / Art Resource, NY)

American Made invites the viewer to look closely and discover the stories behind these works of art," said Besaw. "Many of the artists' names in American Made will never be known. They did not receive formal art education, but they had tremendous expertise and skill, and this exhibition is a way to honor their important contributions to our own artistic heritage."

Besaw noted that the exhibition reveals the self-taught nature of American artists from the mid-1700s to the early-1900s, and tells the story of how these objects found their way into museums. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1781, the development of American identity and American art progressed along similar paths.

Horse Jack of Woodbridge, NJ, 1871 by James Bard (1815–1897); Oil and ink on paperboard; 8 7/16 × 11 13/16 in.; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.17. (photo: Sotheby's)

"The United States began as a grand experiment in self-governance, in which each citizen became a self-reliant participant," Besaw said. "The idea of being 'self-taught' became especially important to early American artists, who adopted the term as a point of pride. The self-taught artist expressed independence, self-realization, and self-direction as the nation cultivated a new, cohesive American identity."

The artworks in this exhibition were not shown and appreciated in art museums until the 1920s and 1930s. This gradual shift of folk art from everyday life to the walls of museums began with a growing desire to connect with an authentic American past. In the early 20th century, a small but influential group of artists, curators, dealers, collectors, and critics started collecting and exhibiting American folk art. Their renewed interest drew attention to art forms that had previously existed primarily as household goods.

Heart and Hand Love Tokens, 1840 1860, Artist unidentified; Ink and varnish on cut paper; 14 × 12 in. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Museum purchase, 1981.12.15. (photo: American Folk Art Museum, by John Parnell / Art Resource, NY)

For the first time, the work of self-taught American artists was integrated into the larger context of the fine arts, and the ordinary objects that once filled lives and homes were recognized as extraordinary.

"Folk art embodies a uniquely American character that resonates with many of us," says Besaw. "The artwork in 'American Made' highlights the role folk art has played in the creation of a national identity. The exhibition also complements Crystal Bridges' own collection of paintings and sculpture and broadens our definitions of American art."

Uncle Sam Riding a Bicycle Whirligig, c. 1880–1920; Artist unidentified; Paint on wood with metal; 37 x 55 1/2 x 11 in.; Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Dorothea and Leo Rabkin, 2008.6.1. (photo: John Parnell)

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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