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ESSAYS

John Kane

FOLK ARTISTS AT WORK

Morris Hirshfield, John Kane and Grandma Moses

For years, folk artists' working methods were among the best kept secrets of the art world. The first dealer to represent the estate of John Kane actually wanted to destroy all his drawings; Grandma Moses's studies and source materials were protectively hidden away by her family; and the drawings of Morris Hirshfield have never, until now, been exhibited. Public display of such items was, for a long time, taboo, because critics preferred to believe that folk artists came to their tasks fully developed, somehow bypassing the agonies of protracted study and struggle to which ordinary artists are subjected. The aura of effortlessness surrounding folk painting was bolstered by the popular terminology, "naive" and "primitive," which not only implied that the artists in question were somehow mentally defective, but, more to the point, that they lived in a never-never land far from the reach of conventional artistic influence. By perpetuating such myths, the critical establishment placed folk art on a pedestal of dubious honor, exempting it from the ordinary flow of art-historical discourse. This attitude probably spared the more inept folk painters criticism for their failings in rendering and composition, but it also denied the truly great folk painters full recognition for the breadth and complexity of their achievements. So long as they were regarded as little better than talented children, folk artists would never be accorded serious study or esteem.

 

The fallacy of the myth of naiveté that still clings to folk art should, if one thinks about it, be readily apparent. Even before the invention of television, America was permeated by mass-produced imagery of various sorts, and it stands to reason that anyone with an artistic bent would have been keenly sensitive to such stimuli. Indeed, for a Kane, a Moses or a Hirshfield, commercially produced prints and illustrations were the only art available, and far from shunning such materials, they embraced them. Lacking access to formal art schools, these artists had to teach themselves, a process that was hardly easy or instantaneous. John Kane learned to mix colors by painting railroad cars and houses, while Moses, a housewife, first experimented with color when sewing, and only gradually advanced from embroidering pictures to painting. She and Hirshfield had to learn to paint the hard way: by trial and error. All three artists began by copying. Hirshfield sought assistance from such models as the toy-store print that became the basis for Lion. John Kane haunted museums and libraries in his home town, Pittsburgh--these were the only source of higher education open to him. Here he copied religious paintings and illustrations from "how-to" books. Moses, who lived in upstate New York, was extremely fond of Currier and Ives snowscapes, which inspired some of her earliest paintings. Quickly, however, she and the others progressed from rote copying, developing unique compositional methods of their own. For Moses, printed source material was to remain important, though she now concentrated chiefly on clippings that depicted isolated details--such as people, houses and animals--which were arranged into original composite compositions. By tracing the outlines of these clippings, she achieved a concision of form far more evocative than the sources. The contrast between abstract figural vignettes and a realistically observed landscape setting formed the essence of the famous "Grandma Moses style." Kane also developed his landscapes in piecemeal fashion, combining thumbnail sketches of a given scene to create a vista unlike anything visible to the naked eye. In his effort to capture his mental vision of the subject, he sometimes assembled views taken from vantage points miles apart, so that the result was more complete, more "real" than the reality. Whereas Kane's drawings are, as a result, fairly fragmentary, Hirshfield's are awesomely comprehensive. In fact, they are literal templates for the paintings, since this artist--a garment worker by profession--planned his pictures much as one would a dress, and his drawings were little different from dressmakers' patterns. Sometimes the entire composition was plotted out in the studies, and sometimes the artist made separate sketches for each of the principal components. In all cases, the dimensions of the drawing and the final image were virtually identical, for the pattern was transferred directly, through pricking or tracing, to the canvas.

 

Hirshfield's reliance on dressmakers' methods, like Kane's experiences with housepaint and Moses' with embroidery, demonstrates the manner in which the self-taught artist takes advantage of his or her particular background, turning skills not generally considered artistic to aesthetic use. The preliminary studies and working materials further reveal that the paintings of all three artists were as carefully thought out and constructed as academic works. Nor should the fact that these artists worked in a non-academic style lead one to think that they existed totally beyond the pale of outside influence. No artist lives in complete isolation, but folk artists, rather than becoming slaves to the academic tradition (as is almost inevitable in a formal school), remain free to pick and choose only the elements that appeal to them and to fashion, therefrom, an original style. Far from being in some sense defective or inferior, folk painters are, if anything, extraordinary, for they work without the aid and support which the academically trained artist receives as a matter of course. The great folk artist is the equal of the great academic artist, and our appreciation of his or her work can only be increased by coming to understand the manner in which it was produced.