Encyclopedia features work of unschooled 'folk artists'


July 07, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

American folk art is enjoying a great wave of popularity, with major museum exhibitions, articles on folk art collectors in shelter magazines and folk art imitators everywhere.

"Americans are starting to look at America," says Chuck Rosenak, author with his wife, Jan, of "The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists" (Abbeville Press, hardcover, $75). "What we call folk art is probably the only true art of the United States in this century."

Young collectors, he continues, are finally beginning to realize that it's very important to study this country, "not just suburbia and condo America, but what we call the real America, the isolated America, the dirt track America."

They define folk art as art created by artists who have not had formal academic training, who have not been influenced by the European tradition of art schooling.

They don't like the usual words applied to folk artists -- naive or primitive. "We don't think that applies to Americans. They're not primitives, they're not naive. What they lack in formal educational training, they have somehow garnered in other ways of the spirit," he says.

"It is a more spontaneous form of art and seems to express to Americans a feeling of pride in what is American within this diverse country of ours. And we don't like the word outsider because once a person has attended his first cocktail party then he's no longer an outsider."

Mr. Rosenak and his wife were collectors of modern art when in 1973 they went to the Whitney Biennial and saw the work of Edgar Tolson, the first folk artist to ever be exhibited there. "We thought Edgar Tolson was the best artist in the entire exhibition, so we visited Edgar and bought from him and then set out to visit other folk artist."

They stopped collecting modern art and completely focused on folk art. "It was a step for us into what we later called the cutting edge," he says.

Nearly half of the artists in the book are black. "I think blacks are taking pride in the work of the black artist who is untrained, who was isolated and who maybe was creating something far more important and in the long run far more lasting than the work of the artist who went to school and was taught the European tradition."

"I don't think that any other major encyclopedia or history of 20th century art would have that large a percentage of blacks participating," he says.

Women are also strongly represented in the encyclopedia.

The work of Baltimore artist Gerald Hawkes, who created incredibly complex sculptures with wooden matchsticks, is represented in the book, as well as the work of painter Lawrence Lebduska, who was born in Baltimore in 1894, but spent most of his life in New York.

The chances of coming across an undiscovered folk artist here on the East Coast are slim, he says. With so many people now collecting folk art, most of the currently working folk artists have been found and recognized.

But when buying he says, "you should always rely on your own judgment. It's just marvelous to find something that no one else has found."

Universities turned out artists like popcorn during the '40s, '50s and '60s, he adds, so that there are very few true folk artists working today and a scarcity of authentic folk art.

The Rosenaks, who now live in New Mexico, formerly lived in Bethesda.

They reject the work of craftspeople who are copying a folk art style. "If you are sitting and copying the paintings in the Louvre, you cannot make art. You have to add a personal statement to it and your own personal vision. If you copy Grandma's basket or Grandma's quilt, it's the same thing."

Their encyclopedia is an important new work that defines and clarifies the world of folk art. Over 250 artists are represented, and in the back of the book additional autobiographical material and portraits of many of the artists are included. With full-color photographs throughout, it is a joy to read and browse through.

"We're just very, very happy to be part of what's happening," Mr. Rosenak says. "We believe very strongly that when the final history of the 20th century is written, that the work of the untrained artist will be very important in it."

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