Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Folk Art: It’s on your way to anywhere

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.


  1. Hi Paul,
    I am enjoying reading this blog- it's like a mini-refresher from your great course (which I took 9 years ago?!?!). Your comment about the joy of discovering folk art on a back road reminded me of my encounter with a giant blue plastic dinosaur/dragon on the side of a very desolate back road in the Salta region of Argentina. It was my best random folk art sighting thus far.

    If you haven't yet, check out it's an amazing gallery of street art from around the world.


  2. Thanks, Amy. So glad you're enjoying the blog. And thanks for sharing your own folk art finds!

  3. I so wish you could feature the folk art environment & my (now) friend, Ralph Lanning in Republic Missouri, Lanning Gardens, but more that you could have met him. I was writing this out & went to find pics for you & just found out he died at 93. I can't believe he is gone (tears). He did fabulous work with concrete & carving stone like Popeye Reed used to do. He also did glass etch carving on flat pieces of glass or mirror, used a very old loom to make rugs, made strange nut sculptures, & more. His wonderful wife Gretchen, who made the most magnificent (old style) crochet baby outfits from an 80+ year old pattern along with other things, died last year & he months later. They were rather lonely & loved company, to talk & show their creations. He didn't like to sell & stopped doing it a couple of years back, but after years I got him to sell me five pieces which I cherish. We loved them & their art & I fear what will happen to it. You can see an obituary news article about him & his art on the URL I put with my name AND a ton of photos of his art on flickr here-

  4. Paul,

    I love your museum, which I just visited for the first time this summer, and am enjoying reading your blog. Have you heard of Holyland, USA, in Waterbury, CT? I think it was quite an attraction back in the day, but it's fallen into disrepair and there isn't much left. The giant cross on top of the hillside by I-84 always fascinated me as a kid.

  5. Thanks, Kristen! Yes, I have heard of Holy Land USA but have never been there. It sounds like there are only traces of the original environment left, which is sad but all-too-common with these fragile works.


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