Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

How to Read an Object

Folk Art, Vernacular Art, or Naïve Art?

Painting with spray of flowers in a vase at the center top above a watermelon and basket, with various fruit like grapes and peaches spread around the bottom.

Attributed to Joseph Proctor (American, active 1860), Still life with a basket of fruit, flowers, and cornucopia, 19th century, oil on canvas. Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection, L2015.41.171

Many of the objects in the Fielding Collection such as Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, Flowers, and Cornucopia attributed to Joseph Proctor are often considered “folk art.” Some people prefer to use related terms like “naïve,” “vernacular,” or “nonacademic” instead of “folk.” All of these terms describe work by artists who may not have had extensive, formal training or decided not to follow the teachings and ideas of traditional art instruction. Often, these artists rely on their own experimentation or local knowledge about how to make things.

Today, there are a lot of people who dislike the term “folk art” because the term may incorrectly suggest that folk art is not as important, well-made, or valuable as work by artists with more formal training. It was a term popularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as art historians and collectors sought to bring more attention to arts made outside of the mainstream or thought to be more representative of regional styles. And it was also applied to other arts, such as music or literature – think about the term “folk music.” All artists consider various techniques, methods, and ways presenting their work and bring their own unique skillsets and experiences to their art.

A long gallery wall displaying a variety of early American metal tools of different shapes and sizes.

Other objects in the Fielding Collection have specific and practical purposes and might not be considered art by some people. Works like the Pierced Spatula, used to turn food over in pans, and the Heart-Shaped Trivet, designed to hold a cooking pot above hot coals, helped cooks prepare food, much like similar objects do today. Although you can imagine how the tools would work in a kitchen, the people who made these also took extra steps to enhance the way they look. Are there any items in your own kitchen that incorporate extra designs or decorations to make them look nicer? Who decided what these kitchen tools in your home should look like? Should that person be considered an artist?

Blacksmiths are professionally trained and highly skilled people. The average apprenticeship lasts up to seven years before they become a journeyman and then a master blacksmith. The fact that these trivets and spatulas are so elaborately decorated indicates that the maker had a high level of training. What makes someone an artist? Is it their level of training, or the types of works they create that makes them an artist?

Discussions about an artist’s life invite questions about how much an artist’s personal biography should affect interpretations of their art. There is a lot of beautiful and skillful art that was made by artists we may never be able to identify. In those cases, we are often still able to appreciate the art by looking closely and learning about the culture in which it was made, as well as the tools, materials, and techniques that demonstrate skill, quality, and creativity.

The Display Matters Too

When placed on display in an art museum, the gallery setting helps direct attention to the creative aspects of objects and works of art. In art museums, these types of objects are usually installed in displays with a lot of open space around them so that visitors can focus on looking at the objects without distractions, and from multiple angles. In many museums, objects and artworks are often grouped together around a theme or a period in time.

Six boxes displayed in a shelf with different color backgrounds behind each box.

Photography © 2020 Fredrik Nilsen

Curators also carefully arrange displays so that similar or related objects are near each other. The decisions curators make about displays can help show museum visitors (in person or online) some ideas that appear in collections of many objects. For example, showing many different kitchen tools together might suggest that certain types of decorations were common, that people liked looking at interesting designs in their homes, or that decorations changed over time or from region to region.

A variety of wooden early American chairs displayed in the center of a dimly lit museum gallery.

All of these strategies are ways to communicate meaning and show parts of our social and cultural history. Sometimes the ways that these are shown will shape or influence what we see or what we think. Those ideas help us think more about how we tell stories about our history and culture and explain our everyday lives.

What happens when we do not know who made a work of art? Should we decide what to think about a work of art from the work of art alone? Or is it important to know about the person who made the work of art too?

Object Explorations and Activities