"Folk art" is a problematic category, particularly when it comes to painting. As a consuming public, we dance delicately around its definition, trying our best not to reduce folk artists to their socioeconomic or educational or geographic context. And yet by naming the category at all we have done exactly that. However, we also give value to folk art when we categorize it. By recognizing, and categorically defining, the unlikely circumstances of folk art's creation, we acknowledge the pure human drive to create, sometimes in improbable situations.
Of course, as folk art has become entrenched in its niche, it has found its champions and gained popularity. And on the heels of that popularity comes diversity - more and more artists are attaching themselves to the category of "folk art" from an ever-broader demographic.
But in large part "folk" artists have been historically unselfconcious about their work. Many, if not most, started creating their art without any expectation of commercial success, or any broader context for their art. They just make what they know and feel. As it turns out, what folk artists know and feel resonates with a lot of us. Some of the best-known folk artists like Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth (whose work is represented in our Arts of the South auction) have ended up in museums and important collections. But in the moment of creation, these artists don't group themselves into an ideological tribe, so we will not do so here either. Instead, we present a few of the artists from whom we have a selection of pieces in our Arts of the South auction, each on their own terms and with their own story.
“I’m nothin'. I’m just a housepainter. The good Lord touched my hands and made me a overnight success. Someday they’re goin’ to put me in jail for impersonating an artist. But I’m happy they ain’t done it yet.”
Woodie Long was born in Plant City, Florida, to a family of sharecroppers. His early rural life picking crops became the subject of much of his later art. Eventually, Woodie became a housepainter - he would sometimes paint scenes on the walls he was hired to paint before coating over them. At 45, while he was recuperating from a illness brought on by long-term exposure to oil paint, Woodie picked up his wife's watercolor brushes and never looked back. His paintings are often filled with long, graceful groups of figures in communal settings that some have likened to Matisse.
Like Woodie Long, Leonard Jones mines his childhood for artistic material. Jones was born in Lincolnton, Georgia, where he still resides today. He made his own toys and drew and painted as a child, but left art behind when he quit school to support himself. Jones made his living as a lumberjack for many years, but began to paint again as an adult with materials to which he had easy access. He usually paints with house paint on roofing metal. Jones uses a brush only to apply the larger areas of color, and then uses his fingers or broken sticks to create figures and details. His work is notable for its unusual use of perspective and the figures whose faces are almost always covered.
Black Joe Jackson
Joe Jackson was also born to a sharecropper family, near Atlanta. Like Jones and Long, he chose house paint as his medium, generally painting on raw pieces of plywood. Jackson was dyslexic, but he almost always painted his signature and the titles of his works directly on the painting, with misspellings that became characteristic of his pieces. His paintings have dynamic backgrounds that take into account light and detail in a manner unusual to folk art.
Content created by the Leland Little editorial team