By the people, for the people

March 05, 1995|By Linda Lowe Morris | Linda Lowe Morris,Sun Staff Writer

It's hard to ignore the woman with spiked hair. So angular, so thin, so stylish. But oh, those legs -- curved and chunky, like something off a piano, or maybe a kitchen table.

Yet collector Denise Tomlinson looks appreciatively at the woman, her latest acquisition, an Alabama folk-art sculpture cobbled from cast-off pieces of furniture and boards, and says, "I just love her. I thought she looked like she belonged in my house."

Folk art is the art of the moment, the hottest of collectibles. A late January auction of 50 pieces of 20th-century folk art, from the extensive collection of choreographer Geoffrey Holder and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, brought a stunning $893,435 at Sotheby's.

And at the third annual Outsider Art Fair, held a few days later, at least one exhibiting gallery reported sales exceeding $400,000. Many at the New York show found their booths sold out or nearly so.

Celebrities Tim Robbins, David Byrne and Malcolm McDowell were among more than 5,000 people who searched the aisles for a folk-art treasure to love. Director Jonathan Demme, on location for a movie, sent a photographer to the show so he could shop from photos.

Folk art, outsider art, primitives, visionary art, art brut (or raw art) -- these are the many names and categories for the broad range of work by unschooled artists, and by those trained artists who choose to imitate the naive but powerful style.

Everything from paintings and sculpture to decoys, quilts, wood carvings, dolls, masks, even cigar-store Indians and antique handmade trade signs, has been lumped into the crowded realm of folk art.

Collectors are finding that folk art, perhaps because of its outside-of-time qualities, fits in with nearly any style or period of interior design.

Richard Edson, owner of the Folk Art Gallery in Bolton Hill, owns a large Victorian home in Reservoir Hill. The mix of Victorian and folk art, he says, works because of the home's gallery-like spaces -- "like a museum inside."

His furniture selections are mission and Adirondack pieces. "A lot of folk art, even though it's raw in texture, works well with that material," he explains.

But he adds that true collectors aren't necessarily worried about interior design. Their homes sometimes look much like artists' studios, where paintings might be casually placed on the floor, leaning against the walls, he explains. "People love being in artists' studios, I think because things aren't put perfectly above the couch, but are sort of jetsam and flotsam, like they're all washed ashore in a certain place."

Ms. Tomlinson's Roland Park house is filled with folk art -- both antique and brand new. "I think I'm attracted to the whimsy of it, the whimsical feel. Like the birdhouse that looks like a chicken," she says, nodding toward a work in her living room. "Those kinds of things make me laugh."

So influential is the folk-art look in her home that its vivid colors seem to have spread out and taken over the walls and floors. The living room walls are a bright yellow, softened by a ragged finish done by Alyson Mott of Dutton Hill Studio. Ms. Mott also

painted trim in the dining room an antiqued robin's-egg blue.

For the kitchen, artist Daniel Hale of Severna Park created a folk-like mosaic -- a humorous scene of chickens, a basket and an egg -- out of pieces of linoleum tile. The tile was cut into rectangles, then placed on the walls and on a cabinet front in much the same way ceramic tile is laid. Thin lines of grout, in this case a blue-green slightly darker than the background color, separate the pieces. Other examples of Mr. Hale's work -- a table, wall cabinet and small wooden sculptures -- are scattered through the house.

On another kitchen wall is a collection of oversized wooden vegetables carved by artist Nancy Thomas of Yorktown, Va. Another work by Ms. Thomas, a carved wooden tree filled with birds, has a prominent place above the living room fire- place.

Floors on the first floor are painted white, an effect which Ms. Tomlinson feels pulls together the bright colors she favors. In many rooms she uses some form of black and white, often checks or stripes, to balance and ground the colors.

As owner of a company that acts as sales representative for manufacturers of high-end decorative accessories, Ms. Tomlinson (who is not related to the owner of the Tomlinson Craft Collection) sees the latest trends in interior design as she makes the rounds of trade shows and shops. Because of this, she says, she tends to look for one-of-a-kind items for her own home. "If you buy timeless pieces, they'll stay timeless -- so you hope, anyway," she says.

Not the least of folk art's popularity comes from the fact that, despite the $33,375 paid at the Sotheby's auction for a folk-art painting, William L. Hawkins' "The Last Supper," it's possible to hunt down an anonymous work in a thrift shop or flea market for under $10.

"Part of it is the hunt, the suspense, finding something you like and turning it over and seeing that it's $1.25," says Mary Randolph Carter, author of "American Junk" (Viking Studio Books).

"I love to see original pieces, paintings, sculpture, funny little chairs. These little statements give special perspective to one's home," says Ms. Carter, who is vice president for advertising at Polo/Ralph Lauren.

Provenance is not important, she says. "Today collectors are more confident, and they have a lot more fun."

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