Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Folk Stylists

Warren Kimble is often touted as “America’s best known contemporary folk artist” and is the subject of an exhibit in the Lighthouse Galleries at the Shelburne Museum on view through October. I saw this exhibit on my recent trip to the museum and thought it would be useful to use the occasion to introduce my readers to the world of trained artists who paint in a folk art style. In the past, these artists have been referred to as “faux naives” or “folk stylists,” but as you can tell from the tag line above, people often confuse the issue and call them folk artists in order to market exhibitions or products relating to this artwork. It is important to know the difference between their work and the folk art that is the primary subject of this blog and the folk art galleries at the Fenimore Art Museum.

Warren Kimble is a fine artist; no question about it. He received his training at Syracuse University and joined the art faculty at Castleton State College in Castleton, Vermont. This training shows in the works displayed on the second floor of the Lighthouse, which deal with themes of war and its human toll and hope for the future (see "Widows of War" installation below). His abstract compositions and object installations are quite good and much more substantive than his stylized folk pieces in the first floor galleries.

The latter feature his trademark style of exaggerated proportions and nostalgic themes that take some of the common attributes of folk art and generalize them for broad audience appeal (the cow, below, is perhaps his best known example). They are basically folk décor – which is fine, if you enjoy that – but they are not folk art in any real sense.

Kimble is by no means the only artist to appropriate folk art style into a commercially viable genre – Charles Wysocki comes to mind – but he may be the most successful. Vermont Living claims his licensing contracts bring in more than $100 million annually.

While there’s nothing wrong with consciously and deliberately painting in a folk art style even after years of artistic training, and nothing wrong with decorating one’s home with this type of art, it’s better not to confuse this output with folk artists who learned to create art informally or through community traditions, and who make art because of an inescapable desire to communicate something important about their lives and the world as they see it. In my mind, nothing trumps the aesthetics of meaning.


  1. Again, another good post, Paul. I think it's an interesting choice that is made by these folk stylists, choosing to study and work in a genre that is based on untrained folk artists' observations of the world around them. It's obvious that commerce far outpaces expression in this work.

    As you said, nothing trumps the aesthetics of meaning.

  2. Yes, I guess it's unfair to judge these artists, who find a commercially viable style even if it is derivative of the work of untrained artists. Commerce is a powerful force but thankfully not a defining one for those of us who pursue a greater understanding of folk art.


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