If the basket never held a nut, is it folk art?
Folk art for folk art’s sake does exist, but there’s a problem with the category. Traditionally, folk art has tended toward the utilitarian creation of woven baskets, carpets, toys made from sandstone, etc.; we’re not talking about oil paintings and pottery as sculpture. Real folk art—not “traditional” mukluks and Norwegian sweaters on the streets of Aspen, Colo.—is created from a tradition within a cultural community, typically exuding the aesthetics unique to that community.
In 1976, the Utah Arts Council decided to get in on the game of collecting such pieces of cultural art by launching a Folk Arts Program. Since then, director Carol Edison notes, they’ve basically been going into local cultural communities asking such leading questions as: “Who makes the biggest, baddest quilts around here?” Or, “Don’t you have a great uncle that welds scrap metal into whimsical pioneer scenes?” There’s even the occasional, “Where might one pick up a fine, handrafted saddle tree?” The fact that Edison simply can’t go around asking who the best artists in the community are, is because old-timers sitting around a campfire whittling a horse from scrap wood don’t often consider the end result a piece of art.
That reality presents just one more wrinkle in Edison’s world. Most collections rely on historic pieces—relics from another, simpler time. Utah’s collection—one of the few state collections in the country—is unique in that everything it owns is relatively contemporary.
“The art looks old because it basically consists of styles that have been passed down over time within community settings, but it’s all new,” explains Edison. “The oldest piece we have is around 25 years old. So, it is contemporary traditional art.”
It’s a fine line. Goshute baskets for collecting nuts and berries are definitely practical folk art. By comparison, modern-day Navajo baskets woven with stories into their designs to hang as art upon a wall, although indeed folk art, are never intended for daily use. Some specimens of this latter vein are shown in museum galleries, but most often they’re marketed at ridiculous prices in kitschy retail “boutiques” lining the main drag of tourist spots—think Southwestern pastel pottery on the Vegas Strip. Americans’ interaction with the genre is typically limited to the latter arena. Fortunately, Utahns aren’t forced to wallow in such ignorance.
Even better than owning such a collection of cultural artifacts, the Utah Arts Council acquired the 150-year-old Chase farmhouse to house it. Consisting of four rooms focusing on four distinct groups prevalent in Utah—Native American, Ethnic, Rural and Occupational—the two-story, adobe-brick museum is open, April through October, smack dab in the middle of Liberty Park. Edison couldn’t imagine a better, more appropriate location to house and contextualize a collection that shows off Utah’s rich cultural diversity.
The site also provides a perfect setting for the program’s Mondays in the Park concert series. During the summer months of July and August, free concerts of traditional performing arts are held on the grand porch of the Chase home. This year opened on July 5 with Chaskis, a group that plays traditional music from the Andes Mountains of South America, and closes with a dance company that performs traditional choreography from Mexico, Ballet Folklorico Citlali. In between, the park also will come alive with evenings devoted to Highland music and dance, cowboy song and poetry, Native American drumming, Swiss yodeling and Greek dancing.
“Our whole purpose is to nurture these arts within their community settings so that the young people in the group will pick them up. That way the skills and traditions will be saved and their own community identities will be strengthened,” says Edison.
In this case, what’s good for a cultural community is also good for the education and inspiration of the larger community. It’s folk art for everyone’s sake.
THE CHASE HOME MUSEUM OF FOLK ARTS, Liberty Park, Monday-Thursday, 12-5 p.m., Friday-Sunday, 2-7 p.m. , Admission free, Mondays in the Park concerts every Monday at 7:00 p.m. www.folkarts museum.org.