Wednesday, August 12, 2009
The most remarkable thing about folk art is that it can be found anywhere. Perhaps the most exciting place to find folk art is along the highways or back roads of any region in the country. There are numerous folk artists who do more than make art; they create experiences by transforming their property into artistic environments that can be explored on foot.
These roadside attractions have been around for decades, but they have received a great deal of attention in the past 20 years or so. The most famous example is Watts Towers in Los Angeles, (above, right) created by Simon Rodia from the 1920s to the 1950s and now a National Historic Landmark. Rodia was an Italian immigrant who spent 33 years making these 99-foot-tall towers out of steel pipes and rods coated with mortar and embedded with ceramic and glass.
Some of my favorite environments are in the South. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia (above), was an amazing experience up until the mid 1990s, when I had the pleasure of visiting on several occasions. Finster was a Baptist preacher who believed he was instructed by God to "paint sacred art." The garden was one way he had of spreading the Gospel. Much of the best art from the garden is now in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a necessary step as exposure to the elements poses threats to many of these creations.
Another favorite folk environment is closer to home: Veronica Terrillion’s “Woman-Made” house and garden in Indian River, New York (above). I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Terrillion some years ago and getting a tour of her environment. It is a stunning collection of concrete figures that represent her life and her interest in nature. Veronica died in 2003, but her garden can still be seen from the roadside and can be visited by appointment. You can find out more here.
Why do these artists create these fantastic settings? Many are driven by an intense need to share some aspect of their lives, and for them, a picture or series of pictures isn't enough. They need to draw people into their world in a real, physical way. If you have ever been in one of these environments, you will quickly realize that being enveloped in some else's imagined and created world is an extremely effective way of understanding their life and its relation to your own. That really is the point of all art. It's just doubly impressive when someone with no prior aptitude in the arts is able to draw upon their manual skills gleaned from a lifetime of hard work to make something truly magical. I'll be featuring some stellar folk art environments in more detail in the weeks to come, so keep your eye out here and on the road. Do let me know if you see something I should be aware of.
After a visit to any one of the hundreds of these environments in the US, you will forever be on the lookout for great folk art on your journeys just about anywhere. It can make an ordinary trip the experience of a lifetime.