Folk Art Self-Study
Folk art comes from direct experience with the landscape. Specific adaptations to local environments give rise to unique forms of creative expression, born out of necessity. The oldest known form of magic, pictographs and patterns have been used for millennia to tell our stories and appeal to natural forces for help in navigating worldly challenges. Because we are living through a time of great transition, I’m wondering how we can we use the collective power of our traditional folk art forms as seeds for reclamation and healing. In order to explore this potential, we would need to reinvigorate forgotten skills that were once passed from generation to generation. But I realize that many people don’t feel they have a connection to any folk art traditions.
So what does folk art have to do with you? We all hail from different backgrounds, with different stories to tell, but have to reconcile with the present, in this place, as a community. With this in mind, my practice has evolved around connecting the patchwork of our pasts with local ecology to produce an innovative folk art language for the present. Though we like to categorize ethnic traditions into neat little taxonomies, doing so deprives them of nuance and life. So while we want to preserve their integrity, shouldn’t there also be a place for decorative folk arts that reflect the complexity of our blended heritage as well?
Imagine, say, a Chinese-Celtic knotwork pattern that was illustrative of one individual’s ethnic makeup. Though it could be viewed as a dilution of culture, exploring this intersection could also serve to deepen and expand appreciation for our unique context in the world. Many people feel that they don’t have the talent it takes to make art, that the risk of doing it ‘wrong’ outweighs the benefits of trying at all. But maybe there is no wrong way, what if the effort in itself is its own reward? Folk art by its very nature comes from the unprofessional, the outsider, the indigenous and the common person. It is a way of interpreting how we interface with nature, culture and storytelling. It is also a way of seeing and understanding who we are.
A self-study can mean that your ‘self’ is the object of study but also that the learning is done on your own terms and in your own time. This flexibility allows us the space to grow and unfold in accordance with our own cultural influences and interests. It also means that the return on investment of time and energy will rest entirely on your level of commitment to the work of unearthing your family’s decorative art forms. But let’s not think of this as work, let’s call it play instead – because it should be a source of joy – though not without its challenges.
If you’re up to the task, I’ve outlined some recommendations to get you started, but listen to your intuition and follow your own sensibilities whenever you hear them calling. The exciting thing about reclaiming tradition is that the threads of the past, once found, must be woven into new and innovative forms to give them meaning in the present. This could be the work of a lifetime or just a hobby for you, either way is perfectly legitimate and precious in its own right. For starters…
Talk to real people, preferably elders in your family, about your heritage and the traditional art forms practiced by their ancestors. If you are lucky enough to still have grandparents or parents who remember the stories around these handicrafts, take care to record this information, as you may find that it becomes fertile ground for the imagination as your folk art practice develops. If you don’t have a readily available cohort of elders to consult with in your family, you are still fortunate in that there are many resources available through local cultural centers, who would love to share their stories with someone like you for this purpose. Take advantage of them, as these folks are literally our bridge to the past and are too often undervalued for their contributions. If you have a living relative who practices folk art – you are way ahead of the game, take advantage of their expertise! Note that even if you have been disconnected from your ancestry for whatever reason, DNA testing can be an inexpensive way to pin the ethnic origin piece down.
Resist the temptation to go straight to the internet as the primary source of imagery for your investigation. The internet often shuffles and distorts the origins and meaning of the content we receive through it, and though we don’t tend to acknowledge it, there are vast swaths of information that simply doesn’t exist on the web. Instead, try supplementing your research with books from the library – they will give more reliable context about the who, what, when, where and why – though still be wary of outdated cultural views. The folk arts are primarily an analog practice, and as such, we will do better by them if we start our search in the analog world and progress to the digital once context is acquired. Collections of folk art objects preserved in museum collections can also be a rich source of inspiration, but understand that they have been isolated from their original environments. Try to feel them out as living, breathing, energetic connections to your predecessors. Don't forget to hit up local cultural centers and events, again, keeping a record of your findings.
When you are ready, start shifting your focus toward place and local ecology. Think about how your ancestors’ art forms and stories grew out of a response to their relationship to the landscape – how they met their need for shelter and clothed themselves, what foods they ate, the adversity they faced, the gods that they worshiped and cosmos they inhabited. How is your current setting like or dissimilar to theirs? How do you rely on natural resources to meet your needs in comparison to how they did then? At one point in time, all peoples honored the land in ways that we are hard pressed to find in secular culture today, are there connections you can draw between folk art and a renewed relationship with ecology? The Earth needs healing and so do we. As a grounding practice in your study, start observing changes in the seasons, lunar cycles, vegetation and animal behavior. This is the stuff our cultural identities have been woven from, and these are the cycles to which we owe everything. Interact with this cast of characters, stepping over into poetic allegorical interpretation to emotionally connect with mythos.
After you have done this initial legwork, you should have developed a sense of where your people have come from, what their stories were, what decorative art forms they traditionally practiced and for what purposes. It is likely that you will only have bits and pieces of the picture to work with – and that’s okay! If you are like many Americans, you will have multiple cultural backgrounds, roots that may be an ocean away and large gaps in story continuity due to various traumas inflicted over the course of generations. Though difficult to square with, this mishmash of stuff is the cultural compost from which we will make new meaning grow and flourish. One thing that is important to acknowledge as we are building on our relationship to place, is the very real and deeply painful theft of land from America’s indigenous peoples. In order to restore ecological and cultural damage, we need to stop dissociating ourselves from the land and from difficult truths about the history of here. Take a moment to marinate on all you have learned and how it nests with your life in the present. It may be helpful to do some reflective writing or drawing before moving on.
Now add all these ingredients together, stir well and try experimenting with the symbols, stories, patterns and materials you have discovered along the way. Make some simple marks on whatever available surface is at hand with whatever you happen to have lying around – this is how every folk art form started – with readily available stuff. Separate your creative energy from any negative judgement you may have about your output. Whatever you have produced, it is good enough, I promise. Every piece of art you have ever seen is the result of a lot of practice, and your skill and style will only improve with repetition. Start with something small and simple, using combinations of point, line and arc – that is all most folk art patterns are made up of – repeating arrangements of shape on ceramic vessels, textiles, inscribed into stone or tattooed onto skin. Try applying these designs to surfaces void of story – your bike, your house, your clothing, whatever.
Share your work. A symptom of white supremacy has been the erasure of ethnic folk art in our surroundings. Imagine your neighborhood transformed by monumental examples of these patterns and colors – all of which carry meaning, tell stories, protect us and orient us to our place in the present. I can envision a synthesis of different traditions coming together for each of us, reflecting the unique composite of our individual cultural makeup, and truly speaking to the richness of the tapestry that exists in our communities. By claiming public space to tell our stories with innovative combinations of symbols and pictographs, we are writing a new chapter in our folk traditions, creating a current language that speaks to the local culture we want to build here. This breathes new life into the old ways, which we need as a kind of glue that binds us to the Earth, our only home. If we can treat it like a garden, tending to each piece with love over time, we’ll grow a hybrid medicinal imagery for healing cultural divides and restoring the landscape.
The prospect of many unique neo-folk art practices is not a panacea by any means, but it’s a place to start. In pursuing this self-study, we come into contact with discomforting histories but also breathtaking truths. Examining folk art forms forces us not only to touch our own traditions, but also to see the parallels between ours and those that are worlds apart. Overlap between representations of solar discs, lunar crescents, water, hills or valleys can be found around the globe. The same symbols repeat again and again within very different contexts, pointing to our oneness as a species. We need that right now as much as anything, as we rest perched atop the wheel of fortune, inching ever toward an uncertain future.