Hemmings (left) and folklorists Geraldine Johnson
hold a "crazy quilt" from abut 1948, at Mrs. Hemmings's
house in Dobson, Surrey County, North Carolina, September,
(Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Photo
by Lyntha Eiler)
|The Folk Archive contains documentation
of a number of traditional quilters from North Carolina, Virginia,
Georgia, and other states, as well as documentation from the
Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest (from 1992, 1994, and
|Materials related to quilts from
both these collections are available online in the American
memory presentation Quilts
and Quiltmaking in America.
During the first half of the twentieth century, folklorists tended
to confine their studies to (1) orally transmitted lore — especially
songs, stories, legends, proverbs, and riddles — (2) certain
customary traditions, such as rituals and festivals, and (3) traditions
related to belief systems — luck, weather prediction, divination,
and the like. Often neglected was the whole realm of human activity
concerned with “craft,” the traditional aspects of how
objects are made and used.
Influenced by cultural anthropologists, cultural geographers,
and European ethnologists, all of whom regularly included objects
and the human activities and beliefs associated with them as elements
of their studies, folklorists gradually came to accept what has
come to be known as “material culture” as an equally
valid area for documentation and analysis. Since the 1960s, American
folklorists have been energetic in their studies of material culture.
American folklore studies of material culture typically address
how objects are designed, made, and used, and what they mean (on
various levels) to those who make and use them. Folklorists are
also interested in the objects themselves, and in such matters
as their shapes and dimensions, the materials from which they are
made, their decorative elements, and the variations between different
makers and groups, as well as variations over time and place.
Houses, barns, and other traditional buildings constitute a subcategory
of material culture known as vernacular architecture. Other objects
of interest include baskets, boats, clothing, furniture, metalwork,
pottery, and quilts. In general, folklore studies of material culture
have favored handmade objects such as these, and craftsmanship
itself has been a special focus.
Could not be Hid, painting by Howard Finster, 1978.
(American Folklfe Center)
|In 1971, Howard Finster began to
build and plant a garden in the two-acre yard behind his home
in Summerville, Georgia, inspired by a vision instructing him
to "build a paradise and decorate it with the Bible." In
1976, a similar vision prompted him to paint "sacred art," which
he proceeded to do, applying to wood or metal the tractor enamel
he used in his bicycle repair business. Over his lifetime,
Howard Finster, "man of visions," as he called himself,
worked at many occupations and trades, including farmer, textile
factory worker, sawmill laborer, and bicycle repairman. He
began to preach at the age of sixteen and was eventually ordained
at Violet Hill Baptist Church, in Valley Head, Alabama. He
traveled from church to church, in Alabama and Georgia, until
he settled at the Chelsea Baptist Church, in Menlo, Georgia.
Finster is typical of many such folk or visionary artists who
create fantastical sculptures and paintings, often using objects
from everyday life. Finster is unusual in that he became widely
known, and came to have his paintings sold at art galleries
in New York and other major cities. The American Folklife Center
became acquainted with the Reverend Howard Finster during a
field project in south-central Georgia in 1977, and eventually
commissioned Finster to paint several paintings, including He
Could Not Be Hid.
The Archive of Folk Culture has many collections that document
material culture. The Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection
(1978) includes documentation of the quilting tradition carried
on in rural communities along the Virginia-North Carolina border.
The Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection (1978 – 82) includes
documentation of numerous objects integral to the rancher’s
life in northern Nevada, from boots to branding irons to saddles,
all the way to ranch houses and barns. The Pineland’s Folklife
Project Collection (1983) includes documentation of the construction
and use of traditional New Jersey bird-hunting skiffs. The Grouse
Creek Cultural Survey (1985) teamed folklorists with anthropologists,
sociologists, architects, and city planners to investigate the
relationships among architectural history, folklife, and historic
preservation. The Italian-Americans in the West Project Collection
(1989 – 91) includes a wealth of information about Italian-American
material culture, including vernacular architecture, the traditional
oven known as the forno, and various objects associated with family-run
wineries. And the Maine Acadian Cultural Survey Project Collection
(1991 – 92) includes painstaking documentation of barns and houses
that can be used to determine the geographical extent of the Acadian
Allied to material culture is folk art, which can be defined as
the use of physical items in the production of symbolic and aesthetic
works by untrained artists. Folk art takes a variety of forms:
painting, sculpture, multimedia displays, and assemblages, as well
as the decorative aspects of otherwise utilitarian objects. Hex
signs on Pennsylvania Dutch barns, tin man sculptures made by metalworkers,
front yard installations and Christmas displays, decorated school
lockers, carved gun stocks, and tattoos are but a few examples
of this rich vein of traditional expression.
The term folk art is somewhat problematical and has been
used to encompass a variety of productions. Folklorists and the
owners of art galleries have debated the definition of folk art
to an uneasy truce. Gallery owners and many museum curators tend
to favor folk art objects that have fine art equivalents, such
as painting and sculpture. They customarily showcase the individual
image and object rather than the context within which it was made.
Words such as naive, self-taught, and individualistic are
used to describe these objects, and the exceptional rather than
the representative creation is featured. In fact, the folk artist
is sometimes characterized as an outsider, visionary, or idiosyncratic, although
gallery owners are loath to relinquish the magic word folk in
advertising their work.
Just as everyone tells stories, knows the words to at least a
few songs, celebrates holidays, and holds certain beliefs, all
people practice some form of folk art. The everyday aspects of
folk art would include the way people decorate the interiors of
their homes or offices, their style of dress and body decoration,
their flower gardens, and even their pencil doodlings and graffiti.
The title of Kenneth Ames’s book on folk art, Beyond
Necessity (1977), goes to the heart of how folk art might
be differentiated from crafts. Where crafts speak to the needs
of everyday living, folk art speaks to the emotions and beliefs
and the need for aesthetic satisfaction. Yet who is to say that
the world of art is any less necessary to humanity than the utilitarian
(Don Ché), surrounded by his hammocks, San Sebastian,
Puerto Rico, September 1, 1999.
(Local Legacies Project Collection. Photo by Giovanni
Figures made in the
shapes of birds, fish, rabbits, monkeys, and an assortment
of flowers, made with dough and painted in bright colors,
on sale at an outdoor market in the city of Quanzhou, southern
Fujian province, China.
(The Nora Yeh Kemmeny Family Collection. Photo by Nora
|Through the Local Legacies
project, members of Congress and private individuals across
the nation were involved in celebrating the Library of Congress's
Bicentennial and America's richly diverse culture. For more
than a year, volunteer teams documented traditional life in
their local communities, including crafts, items of produce,
and events such as festivals, and parades. Documentation of
Puerto Rican craftsmen was submitted by Delegate Carlos Romero-Barcelo.
For five hundred years, Puerto Rico has been a place of cultural
fusion. This amalgamation of traditions has produced varied
expressions of craftsmanship. The craft of hammock-weaving
has been practiced there from the pre-Columbian era to the
present José Gonzales, who learned from his parents,
still uses the traditional maguey fiber to weave his hammocks.
||During the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival
holiday season, folk crafts are very popular among the Chinese
children of Quanzhou. American Folklife Center archivist Nora
Yeh has donated her extensive collection documenting traditional
Chinese arts and customs, including musical performances, both
Chinese and Asian American. The collection includes sound recordings,
films, photographs, color slides, manuscripts, and field notes
made in Taiwan, mainland China, the Philippines, Singapore,
Malasia, Hong Kong, and the United States in the 1970s and
|More selections from the Local Legacies Project
are available online in the presentation Local
Legacies: Celebrating Community Roots.
Joe Reid in the workshop
behind his house, on Barnegat Bay, Waretown, New Jersey,
(Pinelands Folklfie Project Collection. Photo by Joseph
Dan Ramasco, Bruno Ramasco,
and field-worker Howard W. (Rusty) Marshall (left) at
the cemetary in Paradise Valley, Nevada, October 14, 1979.
(Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection. Photo by
|Jersey garveys are blunt-end boats
used by clammers and oystermen. Joe Reid is acknowledged locally
as a master builder of these boats, which he makes and repairs.
One of Reid's customers says," A garvey's just about
the ugliest thing in the world, but it makes a dynamite work
boat. It's a flat-bottomed boat. It's actually a working platform."
||Paradise Valley is the name of both a cattle-ranching
valley and a crossroads community in northern Nevada's Humbolt
County, where the American Folklife Center conducted an ethnographic
field research project from 1978 to 1982. The focus of the
project was cattle ranching but extensive work was also done
on material culture, especially vernacular architecture, and
the work of immigrant Italian stonemasons. In this photo, Rusty
Marshall talks with Dan and Bruno Ramasco about their family
and about stonemasonry.
Wall mural on 26th Street,
in "Little Village, " a predominately Mexican Neighborhood,
Chicago, Illinois, August 13, 1977.
(Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection. Photo by Jonas
A twin barn in Frenchville,
Maine, with connected simple gable roofs. Used for equipment
storage at the time of this photograph (June, 1991), the
barn has additions on two sides and several wide doorways.
(Maine Acadian Folklife Project Collection. Photo by
David A. Whitman)
|Nostalgia for their homeland may
inspire immigrants to create artistic representations of distant
landscapes. The outdoor mural in this photograph publicly expresses
feelings shared by the community.
||Vernacular architecture has been an important
component of field surveys, in northern Maine, Georgia, Nevada,
and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, and the Folk
Archive collections hold both drawings and photographs of ranch,
farm, and residential buildings.
of the Joseph Delmue House, Lincoln County, Nevada.
(Italian Americans in the West Project Collection. Drawing
by Duglas L. Banks)
William Clark with the "junkyard
robots" he created from recycled automotive parts, Newtonville,
New Jersey, 1983.
(Pinelands Folklife Project Collection. Photo by Joseph
|Joseph Delmue was born in Biasca,
Switzerland, an Italian-speaking town on the Italian-Swiss
border. He emigrated to Lincoln County, Nevada, in the 1870s
to cut timber for the mines at Pioche. Turning to ranching
in nearby Dry Valley, in the 1880s, Delmue built a substantial
stone house in 1900 and a large hay barn in 1916, both buildings
patterned after those in his native country. The American Folklife
Center's 1900 field project Italian Americans in the West documented
with photographs and drawings buildings constructed by Italian
||Known as "Robot Man" in his home town,
William Clark uses the tools and skills of his trade as automotive
repairman and the materials at hand in his shop to fashion
robot sculptures and other artful constructions. In retirement
or in their free time, workers who have developed skills in
the use of materials such as wood and metal sometimes turn
their hand to the creation of fanciful works of art.