I had never realized my lifelong love affair with folk art until I began attending the International Folk Arts Market over a decade ago. And I never wondered why I was so drawn to the art form until I was asked to write this brief essay.
Like any other collector’s passion, my connection to folk art has deep roots. Both of my grandmothers were widows by the time I came along, one working to support herself, the other working in the home. Both sewed as their primary pastime. While running a boarding house for single men working at nearby Standard Oil, my father’s mother crocheted “booties” for newborns to share with members of her church. My maternal grandmother sewed creatively on a variety of projects. She collected pieces of handmade lace and created pillow covers for baby pillows, and boudoir pillows to gift to the infirm. Using the vintage lace “scraps” she created collage compositions that featured the beauty of the particular lace pattern against a pale pink case of fine silk. When she saw a dress that she almost liked, she bought it, and then deconstructed and rebuilt the bodice, collar, and sleeves to suit her designer’s eye. She traveled abroad as often as she could, bringing home to us dolls dressed in the costumes of their native lands. This collection of dolls also adorned a Christmas tree she decorated with, based on a picture she’d seen in Vogue. Yes, she loved her Vogue magazines, and was distraught in the 1970s when the provocative nature of the model’s poses and the revealing necklines and hemlines of the clothes crossed her line of appropriateness. She felt morally compelled to cancel her subscription, and let them know why she had. A few years later, she couldn’t bear being without her monthly connection to the world of style, and re-subscribed.
I grew up in a household that placed a high value on art. In a modest house, my mother managed to distinguish our house from those of our neighbors and friends. It was mid-century modern, and what made our house seem distinctive was that it had both an architect and a landscape architect, a rarity in our neighborhood in 1951, and in most of post-war America, actually. All I knew was that it was different, not why.
Fast forward to my education as first an art historian, and finally a landscape architect and professor of design and landscape history. At my core, what I am most curious about are the cultural layers that each generation deposits in its homeland, and how the world is constantly transformed because of this subtle layering process. And yet, one can find essential connections between layers not only in a single place but from continent to continent. It is this universality of human expression that seems miraculous in the way that it weaves together place and time. In my work as a landscape historian and designer, it is these layers that interest me, from the obvious urban overlays of Christian churches on the foundations of pagan temples to the ability of the best of designers—folk artists, those who shape objects using their imagination–to transform simple materials like clay into the most essential but beautiful forms possible.
I took a sabbatical trip/honeymoon to several countries where the Hindu religion was dominant. I chose this itinerary because of an earlier trip to Bali, where I was overwhelmed by the passion and humility with which the Balinese contoured the mountainsides, and cultivated and harvested rice. This recognition led me to ask what it was about Hinduism that created this innate reverence for the earth and its capacity to sustain a culture over many centuries and express environmental and visual harmony at the same time. The creations of Balinese wood-carvers, textile dyers and weavers, painters, and the ephemeral dancers were all art of the highest order and yet created by people (“folk”) who were uneducated and essentially grew up as farmers. This turned my world upside down in terms of social stratification (they still have a caste system), the ability of a religious system to inform a land-use ethic, and how the art created by a culture can be such a clear outgrowth and celebration of a landscape. Masks from Bali and Tibet adorned our walls as our daughter grew up, and Balinese puppets created shadow play against our walls. I often wonder what she thought about the somewhat out-of-context objects that she encountered daily as she brushed her teeth.
I am so possessed with beauty, that I sometimes wish that I could be more discriminating. But when confronted by vibrant and sensual color combinations, geometric patterns that Jung would call archetypal expressions of our collective consciousness, fabric warp, and weft that clearly connect to the plant or animal part from which the yarn or thread has been extracted, I am drawn in. The patterns of Mexican embroidery in the huipils, the woven designs of the baskets of Namibian women made from palm leaves, the geometry of the traditional bowls of Uzbekistan potter Abdulla Narzullaev, or the marbleized shapes that adorn the platters and bowls and whimsical animals of the Poterie de Sampigny in reviving the ancient earthenware of medieval times,—all of these speak to me of a basic, universal recognition of the products of the earth, their inherent potential to become merged with the human imagination to produce something that can serve a daily need and also profess to the universal marriage of people and their places.
Suzanne Turner’s landscape architecture practice focuses on American cultural landscapes, their stories, their interpretation, and how they are preserved for future generations. She taught landscape architecture at Louisiana State University for 25 years and has written several books on southern landscapes. She has consulted on properties owned by house museums, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, and several historic regional parks in Texas, North Carolina, and New York State.