From Whirligigs to Walking Sticks: Folk Art Gets the Focus at Milwaukee Art Museum

Mar 3, 2014

You might not think of duck decoys, old quilts or business signs as works of art, but the Milwaukee Art Museum certainly does.

Its latest exhibit, "Uncommon Folk," is a vast display of American folk art - which the museum began collecting in 1951 when many other institutions considered such works by nontraditional or untrained artists as mere "stuff."

Exhibit curator Margaret Andera says this foresight has helped the museum amass one of the biggest and most unique collections of folk art in the country.

"They were functional objects, but they were collected by collectors who were looking at these things as sculptural forms," she says, "and that’s what happens throughout this exhibition."

What makes folk art interesting, Andera says, is the way these artists' training - or lack thereof - impacts their work. Folk artists don't usually train in traditional settings like art schools.

Rather, most learn their crafts from their communities, acquiring skills in areas like quilting, carving or blacksmithing that have been passed down through generations. Because of this, their works often reflect the messages and morals of those communities and their histories.

"It does push the definition of art, but as the world gets so much smaller and influences are coming from everywhere, I think we have to be open to broadening the definition," Andera says.

The exhibit also features extensive work by self-taught artists. Unlike folk artists, self-taught artists have received no training, whether traditional or communal, and belong to no particular artistic tradition. Even though they might use a particular form, such a portraiture, they haven't studied with anyone.

As a result, their work often display a sense of freedom from artistic rules. They approach art from a literal perspective, which Andera says often makes the pieces more accessible to the public.

“Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art” is now open at the Milwaukee Art Museum and will be on display until May 4th.