All art has roots in folk art. Folk art, by definition, is any artwork produced by artists not influenced by artistic academic standards. A folk artist is not subject to the constraints of accepted fine art standards, movements, or trends. So, ancient Egyptian art, Native American petroglyphs, and Lascaux cave art would all be considered Folk art. As various art forms extended and branched off these ancient techniques, as humans quantified and categorized art and artistic technique Folk art emerged in contrast to Fine art.
Although Native American art probably influences some of the earliest Folk artists in the United States, the early colonists brought with them the contemporary artistic styles of their homelands. Often, early American Folk art was produced as a function of necessity. Many classic early American pieces include items such as quilts, furniture, pottery, hunting decoys, ornate wooden cooking utensils, and textiles. Early American craftsmen and Folk artists would simply add their special touch to these otherwise common functional items.
However, as our country matured, many individuals began to be recognized for their work and their unique style. You might say that these artists started to develop their own brand and brand identity. Over time, as the tradition of Folk art grew and was refined, some artists began to realize various degrees of notoriety. Works by artists like Winthrop Chandler and Lucinda Hudson became valued and sought after in the late 1700s.
As America matured, folk art began to develop distinct regional characteristics. These regional styles were probably influenced by the origin of the colonists, the geography of the region, and the various textures of everyday life. The early Folk Art of New England is steeped in American colonial life and architecture. The Folk Art of the early American West is rich with Native American symbolism and ranch life imagery. Horses, cowboys, Indians, and the rugged landscape capture the essence of a much wilder time in American history. The folk art of the Southeastern U.S. is laced with plantation imagery depicting a time of agricultural expansion and slavery.
The wonderful thing about Folk art is the artists. They are not above their content creating from a place of imagination or wonder. Instead, they live within their artistic landscape. They create in response to what the see and feel around them every day. They are immersed in their material. This gives a great fluid nature to their work. Often they create because the desperately need to process the inequities around them. Other times, they create as a result of divine inspiration. They are simply a conduit for the work of God released through the filter of their own experience and understanding of their world.
Folk art is alive and well today, in fact, Folk art is currently experiencing a fantastic upswing. A new generation of Folk artists are drawing from a now rich tradition and they are innovating in ways that express the modern American experience. American Folk art is a catalog of American history as experienced by ordinary people. If you love art, do yourself a favor and travel to a Folk art show in your region. You will not be disappointed!