Cultural Traditions and the Value of Folk Art

Folk art tends to be filled with culture. The design and the purpose is as much about the community surrounding the artist as it is about the technique or relative marketability of the art (artists have to make a living too!). People don’t buy and display garden gnomes because they are excellent examples of artistic form, they buy them because they are good luck charms and fun representations of European mythology and tradition. I love that.

Traditional Garden Gnome on Etsy

Unfortunately, the cultural emphasis has a tendency to devalue some amazing forms of art based on westernized perspectives. For example, European folk art tends to be higher valued (e.g.: more costly) than South American pottery. In an honest apples-to-apples comparison, a European garden gnome, a Mexican terracotta chicken garden planter and an Italian terracota garden planter are on an equal artistic level. They serve similar purposes and require (approximately) similar levels and types of skills to create. Yet, a quick google shopping search for these categories of items returns decorative Italian planters that range from $30 to several hundred, Mexican planters ranging from $10 to about $200, and garden gnomes ranging from $10 to about $200.

Non-traditional garden gnome on Etsy

From a resale perspective, my own experience has shown that good condition garden gnomes will usually fetch a higher price than Mexican pottery – even when the gnomes are clearly factory made and mass marketed. Also, anything officially identified as Italian tends to be automatically placed in a higher price bracket. Why? Several reasons: 1) Average middle-income white Americans view garden gnomes as safe no-offensive gifts and (sometimes) household essentials. 2) The word Italian is associated with things only accessible to the upper class (e.g.: cars, suits, etc). 3) Mexican pottery is associated with low cost tourist mementos.

I will leave the racial, cultural, cultural appropriation and class-system based discussions to another person (or another day). For now, I will move the focus away from garden gnomes and terracotta pots to sand art and clay whistles.

Ocarina Whistle on Wild Raccoon Market

Both sand art and ocarina whistles tend to be attributed to Native American tribes, particularly those living in the southwestern United States.

Ocarina whistles have a history spanning the entire world – Native American flutes look and sound very different.

Sand art is a Navajo tradition. Sandpaintings are amazing. I can’t even imagine how it is done, much less done well. Nationally recognized artists can fetch a good price for their work and I’ve seen a few that are simply stunning.

Sadly, in the used items market, the reality is that sandpaintings tend to be associated with low-cost tourist trinkets and head-shops (read: businesses catering to people who smoke marijuana). Therefore, they can be hard to sell at an appropriate price, in a general marketplace (e.g.: standard flea markets and resale shops).

The most frustrating thing about this is the fact that it’s a matter of (white) cultural perspective – garden gnomes are appropriate for good upstanding families and sandpaintings are displayed by wild teens and college students. When the wild youth settles down and starts a family, the sandpaintings are replaced with garden gnomes.

Navajo Sandpainting on Wild Raccoon Market

I would like to say this is a distinctly Midwestern presumption and attitude, but I have  traveled all of the lower 48 states and lived in every region (time zone) this country has – in the lower 48 (my hopes of visiting Alaska and Hawaii have not yet been realized). In my solitary-person experience with different communities, people and regional used items markets, these perspectives are pretty consistent nation wide.

It’s also an excellent example of a problem that extends to all forms of art: (de)value by ownership association. An amazing painting owned and cared for by person X will be summarily refused by person Y because of the time spent under the care of person X. Sometimes this is because person X has a bad reputation and sometimes it is because person X has a GOOD reputation. Effectively, person Y does not want to be: 1) associated with person X, 2) seen owning person X’s discarded decor and/or 3) known as the person who paid good money for person X’s vacation-find.

If you have ever wondered why some second-hand chain stores (the Goodwill included) will move large quantities of items across country, effectively selling slightly-different versions of the exact same stuff, here’s an explanation: breaking ownership association is one of the many key aspects to making used items easier to sell.

Art rescue is as much about the often perplexing perspectives of human beings and society’s entirely illogical value-system as it is about preventing quality and beauty from experiencing a dreadful and unwarranted death at the local dump.

As an individual actively involved in art rescue and a fan of all forms of folk art, I challenge you to try and divorce the art from the owner. The quality of an object should not be exclusively determined by ownership history…items previously owned by famous or historic people notwithstanding (that is an entirely different conversation).

Respect Artists Tees

Wild Raccoon Press on Zazzle

Also, inappropriate cultural association is something that should be challenged. Thousands of years of Native American tradition cannot be dispensed with because a few (mostly white) people happen to like both sand paintings and recreational drugs. Equally lengthy Mexican traditions also cannot be tossed away simply because American’s habitually take their summer vacations in the area.

Think about it. Comment on it. Blog about it (send me the links). But, whatever you choose to do, respect the art and the artist.

Respect.

Always.

Fine Art vs Folk Art

The following is an expression of my own opinions about art. It is the reason why so many of the items posted to the Wild Raccoon Market are folk art. It is not an official definition of art forms. I am not an academically trained artist or curator. I am not an expert. Take it for what you will.

Fine Art vs Folk Art

Fine art lives behind locked doors. It is protected by security guards; secured by top-of-the-line electronics; properly insured and never, ever, touched.

Folk art lives in the doors themselves. It is the welcome sign hanging off to the side; the stern metal lion doorknocker; the door handle with fancy swirly designs made shiny and flat from many years of use.

Fine art stands inside the immaculate gardens of important places. It holds the weight of definition, the scales of elegance, in appropriately frozen poses. It is in the statues so imprinted with the weight of history and quality and prestige that no one dares mention the missing hands, arms and heads. Fine art does not change. It is there, holding it’s ground, for centuries of time.

Folk art stands in the shaggy gardens of common places. It holds the responsibilities of everyday priorities. In spring it is painted onto tall, almost-straight, discarded things, carefully marking sections of newly planted corn, peas and carrots. In summer it is the festive flags fluttering in the wind and the garden gnomes dancing with the rain. In fall it is carved out of pumpkins, stuffed into a scarecrow’s clothes and sewn into homemade costumes. In winter, it is made of snow, rolled into balls and decorated with old clothes, discarded vegetables and food coloring.

Fine art is a painting with a carefully constructed metal plaque describing who, what, when and why. It is the visual representation of those things we should know and must appreciate.

Folk art is a dusty side-note displayed in a dim room off a long hallway. It stands together in a case filled with it’s sisters, brothers and cousins; all sharing a single plaque between them. It is the primitive and traditional and crafts and handiwork selected from the sea of un-importance to stand forever within the reflected light of prestige. It is a comparison, a point of not-fine deemed fine-enough to illustrate what is truly fine. It is token.

Fine art is the very expensive and oh-so-proper painting hanging in the receiving room of an everyday home. The receiving room – the one room that is only entered when important, judgmental or stiff-necked folk come to call. It is precise, proper, dust-free and cold.

Folk art is the colorful, comfortable, painting hanging over the living room couch. It is the fairy swinging from the kitchen window. It is the candy dish that has been re-glued many times over because it was made by grandma and, therefore, comes out every holiday – just like grandma used to do.

Fine art is sold at high-profile auctions by white-gloved attendants. It is purchased by straight-backed collectors in designer suits who seriously participate in the investment driven bidding war.

Folk art is sold at community fundraisers by everyday artists wearing jeans and t-shirts. It is purchased by neighbors, who make selections while munching on homemade cookies and chatting about local events.

Fine art is the tapestry hanging on a castle wall.

Folk art is the quilt covering a child’s bed.

Fine art transforms a building into a museum. It takes a historic location and places the title of ‘curated’ upon it’s now-glorified head.

Folk art enters a place, warms the colors, softens the edges, and plays in the yard. It is the tipping point, the key element transforming a house into a home.

A Terrible Mistake – Steps One and Two

I made a terrible mistake. It’s embarrassing, but it happened. Worse, it happened online. What do you do after making a stupid and public mistake? Take three steps: 1) own it, 2) fix it and 3) move on.

Step 1: Owning It

The word Raccoon is misspelled in the Wild Raccoon Press and Wild Raccoon Market logos.

I’ve spent the majority of my professional life working as a writer and editor in some capacity or another. I spend the bulk of my days creating and editing documents. I have spent (literally) thousands upon thousands of hours dealing with words, words, WORDS! Yet, somehow, I did not see the missing C – until now.

This simple, stupid and embarrassingly obvious mistake has been out there for many months. The logos have been posted to my website for ages, and I’ve proudly placed them on social media and professional accounts (read: everywhere), so there’s no hiding the fact.

These logos were the result of a 48hourslogo.com contest, and (now that I see it) all of the other logos are spelled correctly. Palm slap to the forehead, banging head against wall, hand sign for ‘loser’ held in front of face…I did not see it.

So, there it is, the mistake was made and it’s public. It’s big. Much bigger than a misspelled word in a blog posting because it’s so key, central and visible. There’s no escaping the fact, no hiding it under the rug and no changing it. What’s done it done.

Step 2: Fixing it

If you know a designer who would like to help fix this mistake, please direct them toward this UpWork posting. Sadly, 48 Hours Logo does not provide an option for contacting and working with the original designer (without posting a brand-new contest), so UpWork it is.

Step 3: Moving On

I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, I’m so embarrassed….

Art, Poverty and Respect

When I was a kid, my family took one of those ‘great American vacations;’ traveling from Wisconsin to California and back again. While we were far from wealthy, I remember it as the turning point. Soon after, we went from ‘getting by’ and ‘things are tight’ to full-on-poverty.

While visiting relatives in California, my parents loaded the kids into the van and took a day-trip across the border into Mexico. Crossing the border was exciting. The desert was beautiful (even without air conditioning). Yet, what I remember most about Mexico are the tar paper shacks and the roadside stands selling folk-art.

People were living in flimsy box-frame structures covered in black tar paper. They didn’t look sturdy enough to store plastic boxes full of extraordinarily unimportant items. I can’t even imagine how horribly hot it must get inside one of those during a summer day. In the interests of full-disclosure, I must add that I never actually entered one of these shacks. My parents addressed my questions about these houses with short statements (e.g.: it’s just how people live down here) and refused additional conversation without further consideration.

Therefore, just like every other American tourist in Mexico, my family drove past the shacks and stopped at the road-side stands selling brightly painted pottery.

I clearly remember one particular pottery stand. My family wandered around, looking at the wares, side-by-side with other random tourists. I watched the people working. There were adults and teenagers carrying heavy items and looking exceptionally hot and tired, like people who were half-way through a workday at the local factory. There were also children running around, helping out here and there.

Based on the way people interacted with one another, my child-self concluded they were a family and this was their business (this was never confirmed). The pottery was the kind of stuff most people purchase during a tourist-stop in Mexico. It was very pretty and amazingly cheap.

At the time, the weariness of the workers stood side-by-side with the quality and price of the pottery. I kept thinking there was something important about all of this, but I didn’t know or understand what it was.

Recently, I stumbled across a large amount of brightly colored Mexican pottery at a second-hand store. As I went through the collection, choosing items for the Wild Raccoon Market, memories of that decades-old trip to Mexico came to mind. The hand-painted and nicely detailed images of people marching across a shot glass reminded me of those bone-weary workers making large quantities of tourist-art and selling each piece for a few dollars.

These thoughts continued as I sat in front of my computer. For my family, that cross-country trip marked a turning point. Soon after, we stumbled out of just-barely-lower-middle-class, and took a headlong spiral downward into poverty.

One of the first things true poverty will teach you is the importance of respect. It touches every aspect of your life and colors every relationship. It’s also strangely, and pointedly, lacking from the world of underpaid work. When you’ve worked your fingers to the bone (sometimes literally) only to drag your tired body home with less than half of what you need to pay rent (never mind everything else), the word respect begins to encompass a pie-in-the-sky fantasy of very simple lifestyle elements (e.g.: being able to pay rent, being treated with the basic respect due to any human being, etc.) frustratingly accessible only to those in the upper classes.

No matter where you live, working long hours to create something that is devalued because of a long list of arbitrary factors, is dehumanizing. In terms of respect deserved vs respect received, American poor and Mexican pottery producers have something in common.

I found myself staring at these lovely items and thinking about the ‘value’ attributed to them because they were (most likely) purchased for insanely low prices during a vacation in Mexico.

While this may sound a bit preachy and in-your-face (even), I challenge you to place the word respect at the forefront of your mind every time you decide to purchase art. Regardless of what you buy, where you buy it, or who you buy it from; all original, handcrafted art is the product of skilled craftsmanship. It’s not something that can be replicated because it was not created by a machine. Human hands touched, traced, formed, and changed this thing into an object of beauty. The person and the work deserve to be appreciated and respected.

Then, consider extending the same respect to the poor, working poor and workers everywhere; because the person and the work deserve to be appreciated and respected.

Just my opinion.

Take it for what it’s worth.

Elephant Bank

1960s/1970s Circus Elephant Still Bank

When I stumbled across this little elephant my first reaction was: what is it? The slot in the top suggested it was some kind of bank and the penny rattling around inside was evidence I was not the only person who thought that. Yet, I turned it over several times, trying to figure out if it was part of a larger item or some kind of metal-work art project. Finally, it became clear this required further investigation – so I brought it home.

It turns out this is a cast metal 1960s/1970s reproduction of a 1920s era Still Bank, which means it’s a bank without moving parts. The original 1920s banks were manufactured by Hubley A. C. William. I have no idea who manufactured this reproduction because there’s no imprint or logo (or anything).

You’re probably thinking I got all of that off of the internet – and you would be mostly correct. A google image search for cast iron circus elephant and metal circus elephant turned up quite a few items that were very similar, thereby providing the words ‘still bank.’ This new information led me to John Marquand and his Etsy shop: The Still Bank Shop.

John’s Etsy profile invites anyone with a Still Bank question to contact him. So, I sent a photo of my little elephant and provided as many details as I thought relevant – being a complete novice in this area, I was floundering around trying to figure out what details he might need.

After sending the message, I went to work on the list of 1000s of tasks always in need of being done, assuming I’d hear back in a few days. He must have been working at his computer at the same time as myself because I get a reply in less than 15 minutes!

Here’s what he had to say: “Your bank is a modern reproduction of the elephant on the tub bank. Any old banks will have flat head screws, not Phillips head. The paint is not correct for an old bank but yours is pretty colorful! I would say it’s from the 1960’s or 70’s.”

As you can imagine, I thanked him for his amazing help! I also learned two helpful little tidbits about cast metal still banks: 1) The little screw on the side provides crucial information (who knew?) and 2) John Marquand is a really helpful guy!

What’s the moral of this story? If you ever have any questions about Still Banks, stop by The Still Bank Shop and chat with John!

If you would like your very own elephant bank, you can purchase this one at the Wild Raccoon Market or visit The Still Bank Shop for a larger selection. 🙂

Art Rescue in Blue

This post will begin with a shameless plug: I’ve created an Etsy shop! Please visit the Wild Raccoon Market and consider buying something. 🙂

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…

IMG_0088

Adora helping with the flea market booth in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

When I was a kid, my family spent large quantities of time locating sale-able items and hawking them at flea markets. It was less profitable than collecting recyclable materials (plastic, metal and glass) and selling them to recycling plants (at first) and recycling collection machines (later).

After spending many grueling, and often humiliating, childhood-hours sifting through garbage, discount bins, second-hand shops and garage sales; I entered adulthood ready to never, EVER, deal with the used-items market again. Coming from poor family, I quickly learned the new-only lifestyle is not an option available to the likes of me – no matter how hard I work, how many hours I put in or my level of education. Some of us are born into a second-hand, tossed-away world. That is reality. It does not go away. (Deal with it.)

Over the years, I learned to appreciate this aspect of my life and have come to view discarded objects as treasure troves filled with fun decor and fine art – most in need of nothing more than a careful cleaning, a new frame and (maybe) a few small repairs.

Which brings me back to the Etsy site. The reason I went with Etsy instead of eBay is because I have developed something of a talent for spotting and rescuing artwork. Some of it is truly valuable. Some of it simply appeals to me or does not belong in the garbage.

An example of rescued artwork featured in the Wild Raccoon Market is Rita Orr‘s winter trees serigraph. I found this piece in the ‘frames’ bin of a second-hand store. It was encased in (and protected by) a dreadful, heavy, scratched and chipped glass frame which was on the verge of breaking and either destroying the artwork or simply dragging the art into the local dump by virtue of association.

I really liked the painting, so I bought it with the intention of getting an icy, winter-blue, rough-wood frame and either a blue or purple mat, to go with the image. Every time I look at it, I can see the colors being drawn out by a different mat and frame.

Sadly, my finances have not allowed for the re-framing efforts. In fact, the original frame continued to deteriorate, despite it’s protected location on my wall, and had to be removed and disposed. Luckily, the artwork survived the ordeal unharmed.

Recently, I located and emailed Rita Orr, asking for confirmation – is this one of hers? She took a look at the photo I sent and replied in the affirmative. This is, indeed, one of her limited edition prints, from the 1980s. How cool is that?

I hope I can find a good home, where it will be properly respected and appreciated.