Contemporary folk art, sometimes called “outsider” art, refers to artwork created by self-taught artists who work outside the mainstream art scene. The term was coined by the British art scholar Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for “art brut” (from a French phrase that translates as “raw art”), a term originated by the French painter Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. While Dubuffet’s “art brut” referred specifically to artwork created by psychiatric hospital patients or children, Cardinal’s term applied generally to art created by self-taught artists who may never have been institutionalized but who nevertheless felt compelled, called, divinely inspired by God, or driven by inner voices to create artwork.
The history of folk or outsider art dates back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in the United States, when itinerant and self-taught painters traveled from town to town to paint portraits or “likenesses” of their early American sitters. By the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, however, there was a clear distinction between “folk” portraits and “fine art” portraits, the former being produced by self-taught artists and the latter being created by classically trained painters. In addition, there were other self-taught artists in the nineteenth century who carved scrimshaw, made weathervanes and whirligigs, carved and painted signs and figureheads, and who stitched samplers and pieced quilts.
Folk or outsider art continued to flourish in the rural parts of the United States during the first few decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, however, a number of exhibitions began to showcase the work of self-taught and outsider artists. Holger Cahill, interim director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1930s, organized one of the first major exhibitions of American folk art in the United States. It was during this time that art collectors and wealthy patrons, such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others, began to amass large collections of folk art that would eventually form the basis for some of the most significant folk-art collections in this country, including the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
From the 1940s on, there emerged a large, identifiable group of self-taught artists who became notable and collectable outsider artists in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They tended to live in rural parts of the United States and lacked formal education. Many were the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and former slaves. Most started their artistic careers late in life and often used inexpensive and ordinary material—whatever was available and handy—to create their artwork. Some of these artists experienced visions in which God or the angels told them to make art, while others carved, painted, or sewed to keep active or busy in retirement. Still others used their artwork to rail against the government or their neighbors. Artists like Rev. Howard Finster, Dilmus Hall, Eddie Martin, Nellie Mae Rowe, Mary T. Smith, and Sarah Mary Taylor would emerge at this time as important figures in the folk art movement and would eventually form some of the cornerstones of the Willem and Diane Volkersz collection.