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.
It's our heritage, and we shouldn't let anyone else own it, not most of it anyway. Folk art is by, about and for black people. White people flock to events like Kentuck and pull up a chair to talk with artists about their art, but the number of blacks in attendance can be counted on one hand.
Each October, more than 30,000 people go to Northport, Ala., a city nestled along the Black Warrior River in the shadow of Tuscaloosa, for one of the most popular folk and contemporary art shows in the country. Among the 300 artists, including painters, sculptors and photographers, there is a group of self-taught black artists, so-called outsider artists, who have risen to fame by painting, quilting and sculpting their stories.
Folk art rose to prominence in 1982 when the exhibit, "Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980," opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. As the collecting of black folk art grew, so did skepticism about its following. In 1993, Morley Safer, questioned whether William Arnett, a white collector in Atlanta, exploited the black artists he promoted.
Folk art has long been celebrated by major artists. The work of the late Mose Tolliver and the late Jimmy Lee Sudduth has become part of permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas visits Yale University twice a year as a guest lecturer, and quilter Yvonne Wells, who counts among her work a quilt that features Rosa Parks, participated in a cultural exchange in June with artists in Pietrasanta, Italy.
The art, to be sure, is primitive, pulling in found objects such as bottle caps and scrap metal to decorate anything from metal to plywood to cardboard, to be mixed with house paint, mud and vibrant acrylics. Some compare the seemingly simplistic approach to children's art. But nothing about folk art is childish.
Charlie Lucas, Doo Rag Lady, 2008, features an old men's shirt and metal roof shingles.
It is historic, uncommon and affordable. The work tells stories that are rooted in history—personal, regional and national. The artists draw from their personal experiences and histories and the collection of their works tells the story of black people in America. If left uncollected, it will disappear with the lives of those who create it.
I started collecting folk art because it tells a story and was the only original art I could afford on a journalist's salary. I have eight pieces, a small collection, including work by Mose Tolliver, most of them purchased in the privacy of the artist's home.
So, I was taken back a bit when I traveled to Kentuck for the first time in 2002. I quickly fell in love with a Sudduth painting. But a group of people, all of them white, swirled about the artist. If I took too much time deciding, I would go home empty-handed. I put my hand on a painting of a red farmhouse with a border made of mud and didn't let go; it had to be mine. Five years later, Sudduth died at the age of 97. I bought the piece, and in doing so I am keeping his legacy alive. It is a shame, though, that that legacy—our legacy—is not embraced by more black people.
Even though I see them in galleries and online for hundreds even thousands more than what I paid for them, I can't imagine ever parting with any of my pieces.
Collectors see it as an investment in a dying art form. "From a design standpoint, she handles the line very well," said Hessler, admiring a chicken painted by Alabama artist Betty Sue Matthews. I see it as preservation of my culture.
Art has to speak to the person buying it. Maybe that explains the scarcity of black collectors. Maybe black folks don't want to be reminded of a painful history in art because they live it, see it and feel it everyday. Maybe it is just another example of self-hatred.
Whatever the reason, I fear that when we finally decide to claim folk art as our own it will be far beyond our reach. The pieces will be owned, largely, by those whose parents or grandparents have profited from the investment—people who will offer to sell it back to us for a handsome price.
Monique Fields is a writer living in Alabama.