Towards a New Folk Art
"The southern folk artist has particularly deep ties to place. In their more isolated region with its long, vivid history, folk art is an intensely personal expression. It is not conceived with the museum in mind. Its images appear as dreams and visions to artists who release them on canvas, cloth, and in sculpture. Artists often treat their pieces as children and share them only with family and friends."
So reads the introduction to William Ferris's fascinating book "Local Colors - A Sense of Place in Folk Art". Ferris is a celebrated historian of southern culture and art, and his book reads like a transcript of tape-recorded interviews with numerous folk artists, in various genres.
My 'take away' from reading this book is how different the approach to art is when it is not directly targeted toward consumption by the professional, gallery-oriented art world. To these folk artists, making their creations is a process inextricably interlinked with the continuum of daily life. Theirs is an art inseparable from the craft that produces it; the two are one. The inspiration for their creations comes just as often from dreams and visions as it does from memories of earlier days.
I have found myself musing lately on the theme of folk art. What we have come to know as folk art seems to be deeply rooted in the rural culture of the socially dispossessed Deep South. Yet I wonder if in fact the world of folk art is much wider. Could it be possible to find a genuine folk art in the hustle and bustle of the big city, or most importantly, within the middle class, docile suburb?
Here I speak of the importance of finding a suburban folk art if for no other reason than that's the condition under which I find myself residing.
If this hypothetical suburban folk art existed, what would it look like? What would be its similarities and differences with what we have come to know as southern folk art?
For one, it would take on the attributes of the culture at large. That is, its craft may not be identical to the hand worked crafts of the rural south; rather, we may find suburban folk art interested in the technological aspects of the modern, electronic home environment, for instance. Or, more traditional hand-worked crafts may be employed, but in novel ways, inspired by more contemporary issues or the infusion of popular culture.
What I suspect is common to folk artists of all cultures is the importance of memory and spirituality in their work. These are highly personal works that, rather than asking to be interpreted by the viewer, as is the norm in post-modernist western culture, they invite us into the intimacy of the artist's life, whereby we inquire of the artist for the work's interpretation and meaning.
With this as a background, I have begun to ask myself questions related to memories of my growing up years. Specifically, what are the visions that seem to be in the back of my mind when I think back on those years? As I ponder this, it amazes and surprises me that I have not consciously used these memories and visions previously as inspiration for creative works in the genre of photography.
Yet today I have begun to take a leap into that direction.
Take the image posted here, "Domestic Tranquility 4", as an example. This diorama set piece was inspired from the nighttime view looking out my bedroom door, into the dimly lit hallway, that was so common to my childhood. Whether it was lying awake after a bad dream, or the restlessness of sleeplessness, this view I pondered night after night for many years, yet have never consciously thought about before as an inspiration for picture making. I'm sure this scene differs little from that of many others who grew up in non-descript tract housing, whose doors, closets and hallways all looked similar.
What I have decided with this scene is to approach it with some of the same elements as a traditional southern folk artist would: the mutual aspects of deep memory combined with a highly personal spirituality.
I have chosen to use some stylistic cues from German Expressionism (inspired by "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), making the corners and angles skewed and kilter. I've also included a spiritual figure, so common to those long nights many years ago, as a counterpoint to the dark, mysterious shadows at the end of the hall.
It must be acknowledged that I wasn't raised Catholic, so the figure of the Virgin used here is not so much a direct reference to a particular denomination as it exhibits a duality referencing both my personal spiritual hunger at the time, and my troubled relationship to my step-mother, who would often pace the hallway floor at night, due to chronic insomnia. The reference earlier to Dr. Caligari is made more complete by the figure playing the role of the Insomniac, rather than the Somnambulist of the movie's plotline.
The craft employed in the making of this image is a result of years of working with pinhole cameras and the medium of photo paper negatives, coupled with an intense desire to explore the world of the diorama as a miniature stage upon which are acted out these stories from my imagination. Looking back now, I see a pattern develop that shows a long-term interest in staging reenactments in miniature of events in my life, and the lives of family and friends. Combining these stagings with pinhole cameras is an ideal arrangement because no other optical system can image in close-up a scene rendered with near infinite depth of focus.
I would acknowledge that this image is a mere first attempt at finding a solution to the problem of suburban folk art, and as such should be taken as nothing more than that. It is simultaneously indicative of deep psychological trouble, coupled with a highly personal, evolved photographic craft.
What I find in common with the traditional southern folk artist is that I lack the desire to label myself as an artist, nor do I refer to these photographs as works of art. These are pictures of distant memories, as if the camera were somehow turned inward, the pinhole aperture piercing my skull, letting in the fresh, early morning light of scrutiny.