Collecting and decorating with folk art is my passion. I’d like to give you a little transfusion of that passion. Because I think folk art can be displayed in practically any interior setting. I live in a really plain, poorly made, 1980’s apartment building. The art works well to disguise the drabness of my place. On the other hand, folk art would fit in nicely in a vintage home. I’ve also seen it displayed in tres’ modern settings, where it looked great. It added a human touch to the otherwise minimalist glass and metal interior.
I’m going to share examples from my collection, from several cultures — cultures within and without America. Let’s start off with some Native American creations. And please keep this in mind: I’m a collector, not an expert.
My papoose cradle board is a very traditional “doll sized” version of an Apache Indian cradle board; it comes complete with authentic trade cloth doll. In photos I’ve seen, the doll is often missing. This was created from yellow cloth, willow twigs, wood and cord. It’s decorated with tiny seed beads. Little slats of wood make up the backboard. This is the only example I’ve ever seen, other than in photos on the internet. I’m so happy to have found it. I imagine it’s close to 50 years old. (FYI: The hood on a real cradle board is made to provide the baby with protection from the sun.)
You can find Navajo dolls at flea markets and antique malls. The ones you find could date from the 1950’s, to the present. There’s a long tradition of making these beautiful dolls. I’ve had many over the years. I had to downsize in the early 2000’s, and regretfully, I sold some wonderful ones. But I know they went to good homes; that gives me some solace. This is a particularly attractive one. She has a skirt and two underskirts. (Is that what they’re called? I’m a guy….) There’s a generous amount of bead-work. — I remember my Mom using her Singer sewing machine to attach trim, or bric-a-brac, to fabric. This doll’s dress has that trim, so I know it’s not extremely old. I’d say it’s from the 70’s.
Aren’t these pretty? They’re clown Kachinas, or Katsinas. Sadly, both are missing some parts. Because they were apparently assembled from small, carved pieces, with a glue gun. Or something like a glue gun. I paid $28 plus state tax, for each of these, in 2000. If you want a real Kachina, be prepared to pay much, much more than that. But you’ll have something that’s really amazing, and relatively rare. I keep these only as an example of what not to buy. Cheap, poorly-made Kachinas can be found rather easily. Just remember: they look great, until pieces start falling off. These are signed on the bottom, “Jay”. Thanks, Jay…. (Note: watch out for the word “vintage” being used to describe these if you are shopping on the internet. Sellers will put that on Kachinas, and anything else, whether or not they know that is an accurate label.)
Here is a painted rock, by Teresa Hopper of Puyallup, WA. Teresa goes to the river and carefully picks out the rocks she paints. This particular one is her interpretation of a Native American petroglyph. Teresa doesn’t claim Native heritage; but she likes to pay her respect, and she just has to do this. She’s painted thousands of rocks, each one with great care, in many styles. I have a whole collection of these. I was so honored when she walked around my apartment, circa 2000, taking photos of my art, so that she could replicate it on her wonderful rocks. This one cost me about $4. Her prices are way too reasonable.
This doll, and its mate which follows, were not made to play with. They were made for hanging on the wall as art. The dolls are made, at least partially, from those little cloth loops which are often used on a small loom which makes potholders. I found this pair for a very low price, in a plastic bag, at an antique mall. I couldn’t wait to take them home, liberate them from the bag, and give them a spot in my African-themed kitchen.
This is a very well-made Ethiopian basket. I have extremely ugly kitchen cabinets; so I have one of these beautifully woven baskets hanging on each cabinet door. Suddenly the ugly brown “Contact paper” facade becomes a much more attractive background for this great art. Look for preowned ones at antique stores and flea markets, or new at African art stores, which most medium-sized and larger cities will have. I love all Ethiopian art, including their beautiful Coptic Christian crosses, of which I have two.
Since celestial objects were worshiped by the Aztecs, many Mexican carvings have a sun, moon or star motif; this wooden plaque has all three. It also has some age on it. One way I know that, is this: I’ve never seen another one. Not even a photo. Things like this tend to get discarded over the years, making surviving ones rarer. — If this was new, I’d see them everywhere. I’ll say it’s from the 60’s-70’s. I like it because it provides what everyone is looking for in their decor these days: a pop of color. (Try this: Google “Mexican wooden carved sun star moon plaque” and you’ll see rows and rows of images of Indonesian carvings, and a few Mexican-carved ones. Indonesian carvers are skilled enough to carve in the Native American style, Mexican style, African style…. You can be fooled.)
I collect manger scenes, aka creches. This one was made of fired clay, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where skilled artisans live. I just love it; I leave it up all year. It’s too pretty to display only one month out of the year. You can find these, new, at import stores like Ten Thousand Villages. This set is about twenty years old. Jalisco work is pretty easy to identify. Look for glossy glazes and smooth modeling. — It won’t have the rustic look of the plaque which I featured above.
Wow. And speaking of rustic Mexican art: this wildly painted grouping is just that. But I adore it. I’ve had to glue it back together. I think I still have an arm somewhere which needs to be reattached to the mother. Things like this are made of clay, dried, and painted. Not fired. Very breakable. But if you want a bit of pure whimsy, pure color in an area of your abode, put this there.
Here’s one last Mexican piece, about which I know little. I found zero examples on the www. — Partly because I don’t know what to call it. But it’s crafted from slabs of clay, modeled and painted to depict a flower shop. I did manage to see a few on sale for about 40 bucks apiece in a folk art gallery in Seattle, circa 2000: the late, lamented La Tienda Folk Art Gallery. I have little information to share with you. I’d say it’s at least fifteen years old, because that’s the last time I ever saw one. It’s large enough, and colorful enough, to look really good on your wall. When I move house, I always carefully stake out a special spot for this.
Let’s visit Brazil. This is my only Brazilian piece. It’s a wonderful carved figure of a percussionist. The label on the bottom tells me that it comes from a street named Santos Rua in Frei Gaspar, a small city located in the northeast of the state of Minas Gerais. The carving has an African look to it. Many enslaved Africans’ descendants help to make up Brazil’s population. The African influence in the arts and music was and is strong, just as it was and is in American towns like New Orleans, LA. A side note: Brazilian music is so wide-ranging. It has so much to offer. Brazil is a large country, represented by many cultures.
I found this beautiful, vintage Peruvian clay figure in the 1980’s. When my late wife and I visited the Museum Of International Folk Art in Sante Fe, New Mexico, I was so happy to see many of these, displayed in dioramas. They came from the collection of one of the most noted collectors anywhere: the late Alexander Gerard. His collection, which he donated to the museum, forms the backbone of the MOIFA’s great offering of folk art. This figure is dressed in a traditional cloth costume; the cloth has been stiffened in some manner. Perhaps it was painted over with paste or starch. It’s a rare, signed piece. I couldn’t make out the artist’s name, which is there, but faded; but it also says, “Peru 1944″ on the bottom. That would make this little lady 72 years old. She’s not exceptionally large (6.5” tall); but she’s so beautiful that she easily holds her own when it comes to improving my decor.
This amazing, 3-D applique wall hanging from Peru has some age on it. You can see how it’s been faded by exposure to the sun. I bought it used, at an antique mall, nearly 30 years ago. As is usually the case with hand-made art from around the world, older pieces just seem to be better — more detailed. (You can definitely find new ones today; but try to find an older one. You’ll see the difference in detail.) The woman who made this from little scraps of colorful cloth should be very proud of her work. — I take and share many photographs. I share the most colorful, pretty ones. I hope in some small way, my photos can beautify the world in the manner that this wall hanging does.
This is a whistle — more accurately, a flute! By blowing on the hole, you’ll hear several beautiful notes played simultaneously. This group of Peruvians is known as the “gossipers”, because they’re whispering secrets behind their hands. I don’t really like that name…. This piece is twenty years old. It’s definitely an example of a newish piece, which is not made with the same skill an older one would be made with. It looks like the bulk of the piece was formed in a mold. Then, small pieces such as the hands, were added on. I know this, because I had to reglue a hand back onto the piece. (Elmer’s glue is excellent for this.) It appears to have been painted rather than glazed. I like it; but if I could spend the same money, approximately twenty bucks, on a vintage piece, I would.
I’ve had people describe these figures to me as Indian temple toys. I was told they were used to familiarize children with the various Hindu gods. However, I’ve had a difficult time confirming that in my www searches. They’re little papier mache animals, and they are indeed from India. I just love them; and I try to buy them whenever I find them. However, prices will vary wildly, depending upon who is selling them. The smallest ones are often used in making beautiful necklaces; I’ve bought whole necklaces for a couple of dollars. I take the animals off of the necklaces and display them as you see here. But, I’ve also seen the animals priced at a dollar each. The larger ones go for several dollars each. These are vintage, probably made in the 60’s or 70’s. They have some wear on them due to their age, which I happen to like a lot. The larger ones can be hung, so I put them on my multi-cultural Christmas tree every December.
South-east Asian embroidery often depicts folk tales. This particular one simply depicts an agricultural scene. This photo doesn’t begin to do the actual artwork justice. Many of these were brought home from the Vietnam war. They’re getting harder to find, because many of the artisans, having immigrated to America, have changed their style to suit American tastes. You can visit a street fair and meet the women who do the fine needle-craft, but their wares will probably not look like this. I hope you can find one of these. (And they are sometimes listed as Hmong needlework, or Cambodian needlework. But, a Vietnam vet showed me several he personally brought home from Vietnam.)
This intricate, lovely embroidery was made specially for me by my young co-worker who moved to Seattle from Ukraine. Lyuba gifted it to me in 1996. I’ll never part with it. It has an honored place on my wall. If you come across items like this, please appreciate them for all the hours that go into their creation. This is truly a museum-quality piece. Lyuba also played Ukrainian folk instruments. It’s great when children are taught about their culture, whatever that may be.
Here’s a beautiful example of North American folk art carving. This “Old Man Winter” piece is signed “LN”; it’s dated “1971”. I have another, similar carving which is a little newer. You can see it in the very top photo, up above. That one is signed “Lee”. I bought them together; I’m sure the same carver created them both. Beware, because you can wind up with a fake made of resin. This is a popular motif, I’ve seen quite a few fakes. Nothing replaces hand-carved.
Now, just to inspire you to make your own art, I’m showing a couple of pieces that I made. First, I found this little cedar wood item which was originally made to hang on the front door of an abode. It held a message pad, and it had a pencil attached to it. I repainted it inside and out, and added a “protective hand” symbol which I found at a flea market. The protective hand is seen in many of the world’s cultures.
Here is the same item with its door partially closed. I used markers, which I painted, from a 1930’s Parcheesi game for decoration. The game was incomplete, so I didn’t hesitate to take items from it to use in this “found art” piece.
I made this shrine to the legendary Texas Tejano singer, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, whose life was brutally taken by her former fan club president, in 1995. Although she was so beloved by the Hispanic community, I, like many others, never really heard her music until after she was taken from us. Constructing these kind of shrines dedicated to folks who have passed away is a Mexican tradition, and I would say, a tradition of just about all cultures. I gave the black and white photograph a vintage look, and I attached little Mexican milagros (miracles) to the base of the frame. I actually used a sandalwood frame from India, which I cut-down to size and painted with good old Crayola paints, in 2002. In folk art, you use what you have! — I made this to pay respect to Selena, because I don’t think she received the recognition and/or respect she deserved, during her lifetime, and after her death.
Here is a stack of some of my collecting books, nestled in a piece of 1930’s furniture. I haven’t looked at them since I moved in here three years ago, because I dare not disturb my cable box! It’s very touchy about — being touched. I’m fortunate to have additional books. I keep the ones I really want to look at closer at hand. But in the past, I learned a great deal about collecting my kind of art by reading these books. And yes! There is a Beatles book here, which doesn’t belong. But hey, how OCD do I have to be?
Please look in my archives for other stories about my various collections of art made by the human hand. And go for it: decorate with folk art!
You may have noticed a theme running through my story: assigning a precise date to a piece of folk art is not easy. Items can be made to look old. And as mentioned above, the term “vintage” may be included in an item’s description on the internet, without any kind of proof offered to back-up the claim. — Basically, a truly older piece will have some wear; it will probably be more detailed. It will appear as if sufficient time and care was taken in its creation. It wasn’t just quickly put together, for bulk sale.
Bonus photo: How to disguise an ugly kitchen: cover it up with folk art!
Bonus song: Just for fun, here is a little cultural mashup for you. My friend Bruno Peretti, and the band he plays guitar with, Monoclub, combine Brazilian folk with American alt-country, to make their own fabulous blend of sounds. Here’s one of their videos. Just click: