Where are the Folk in Folk Art?

Why are white collectors buying up our heritage?


Each year, Steve Hessler and Dolly Vehlow make a pilgrimage from their home in Washington, D.C., to the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Ala., to chat with old friends and buy art.

Since the 1990s, the couple has purchased pieces from Mose Tolliver, Charlie Lucas, Yvonne Wells and Betty Sue Matthews, a cadre of self-taught artists whose work depicts their memories of the mostly difficult lives of black people across the country.

The art speaks to them. “It comes from the heart rather than the head. It’s intelligent, but it’s not academic,” Hessler said.

It’s also not lost on Hessler, a trial lawyer, and Vehlow, a graphic artist, that they are white and most of the artists they so admire are black. As collectors, they are keenly aware that folk art is not wildly popular among blacks, but they can’t explain why.

“It’s a treasure, and I don’t understand,” Vehlow said.

But folk artist Bernice Sims, who uses bright acrylics and paints scenes from her childhood, said she understands why some blacks shy away from work like hers. She cites the price and the lack of exposure to folk art. But mostly, she says, the art makes some black people uncomfortable”.


Bernice Sims, The Cotton Fields, 2008, features acrylic on canvas.


Some of us are ashamed of where we came from,” says Sims, whose painting of civil rights activists crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge was featured on an U.S. stamp in 2005. “This is part of our heritage.” And that is what resonates with me.