Folk and Self-Taught Art

Media - 2016.5.22 - SAAM-2016.5.22_1 - 119206
Unidentified (American), Untitled (Housetop), 1920s, wool, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Corrine Riley and museum purchase through the Barbara Coffey Quilt Endowment and the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2016.5.22

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of folk and self-taught art represents the powerful vision of America’s untrained and vernacular artists. SAAM is one of the only major museums to clearly advocate for a diverse populist and uniquely American voice within the context of what is traditionally considered great art.  

Themes

Artists who are deeply engaged with personal exploration often create works of profound complexity. Recurring themes include struggle and persistence, salvation and protection, and the reshaping of personal worlds through creative expression.

The Collection

SAAM was among the first major museums to champion and collect works by self-taught artists. This aspect of SAAM’s collection spans works that emanate from folk traditions, such as quilting and woodcarving, to highly innovative works of great personal vision. It began in 1970, after the astonishing Throne of The Third Heaven of The Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, made by James Hampton, came to light in a makeshift studio not far from the museum following the artist’s death. Several donors made it possible for this iconic work, understood as a seminal representation of African American cultural and artistic heritage, to become the cornerstone of a collection that aimed to tell an ever-expanding story of America through the art of its people.

Since it acquired Hampton’s “Throne,” the museum has been recognized internationally as a leader in championing the importance of works by artists who have no formal art training. In the early 1980s and 1990s, Chuck and Jan Rosenak donated many important works to the museum. SAAM’s largest single acquisition of works by self-taught artists came in 1986 with more than 500 works from the ground-breaking collection of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., which firmly established the museum’s ongoing commitment to this work. Important gifts from Bill Arnett, David L. Davies, the Kallir Family, Josh Feldstein, Margaret Parsons, Judy A. Saslow, Patricia S. Smith, Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan, and others followed. In 2016, Douglas O. Robson donated ninety-three works of art from the collection of his mother, Margaret Z. Robson.

Today, SAAM’s collection of folk and self-taught art features more than 400 artists and 1,300 works of art. The collection is one of the most visited and widely admired of its kind.

Selected Works

Media - 2016.38.43R-V - SAAM-2016.38.43R-V_2 - 126225
Fan
Dateca. 1970
paint and ink on card
Not on view
Media - 2014.15 - SAAM-2014.15_1 - 96013
The Struggle
Date1973-1974
acrylic on wood
On view
Media - 2016.38.87A-C - SAAM-2016.38.87A-C_4 - 126322
Untitled (Bird Bath with Figures)
Dateca. 1932-1940
carved limestone
Not on view
Media - 2016.38.26 - SAAM-2016.38.26_1 - 127014
Bull Dager
Dateca. 1980
paint on sheet metal
Not on view
Media - 2019.6.10 - SAAM-2019.6.10_1 - 136677
Portrait of Helen (Lena) Ten Broeck
Date1834
oil on canvas
On view
Media - VR.2014.49.GRP - SAAM-VR.2014.49.GRP_1 - 126327
The Healing Machine
Dateca. 1955-1986
mixed media
On view
Media - 2013.69 - SAAM-2013.69_1 - 89547
Iceman Crucified #4
Date1958
oil on canvas
On view
Media - 1986.65.385 - SAAM-1986.65.385_1 - 10026
Female Navajo Figure
Dateca. 1962-1964
carved and painted wood
On view
Media - 2015.48 - SAAM-2015.48_1 - 124399
Untitled (Hart/​Heart)
Dateca. 1950-1960
carved wood
On view
Media - 2014.61.1 - SAAM-2014.61.1_2 - 120817
Nativity
Dateca. 1968
paint on tin
On view
Media - 1986.65.192 - SAAM-1986.65.192_1 - 82442
Untitled (Church)
Dateca. 1950
crayon, pencil, and watercolor on various joined papers
Not on view
Media - 2015.20.2 - SAAM-2015.20.2_1 - 118511
28 – 28
Date2014
mixed media on paper
On view
Media - 2014.4.3 - SAAM-2014.4.3_1 - 100227
Untitled
Dateca. 1978-1988
tempera and marker on paper
Not on view
Media - 2015.56.8R-V - SAAM-2015.56.8R-V_1 - 123807
Untitled (Twins)
Dateca. 1978 - 1986
oil on board
On view
Media - 1986.65.138 - SAAM-1986.65.138_1 - 9757
2 Dogs – 3 BANDSMEN; and camera
Date1963
oil on fiberboard
On view
Media - 2013.27.1 - SAAM-2013.27.1_2 - 92204
Untitled
Dateca. 1931-1977
found paper, string, and wood
Not on view
Media - 2015.20.1 - SAAM-2015.20.1_1 - 118510
Untitled (peach and gray with graphite)
Date2010
acrylic and graphite on paper
Not on view
Media - 2013.84 - SAAM-2013.84_1 - 118507
Prince Abu Zabi y Su Jardin
Date1970s
ink on posterboard
Not on view
Media - 1993.1.3 - SAAM-1993.1.3_3 - 127003
Yielding to the Ancestors While Controlling the Hands of…
Dateca. 1992
oil on wood and metal
Not on view
Media - 1994.46 - SAAM-1994.46_5 - 127239
Birthing
Dateca. 1986
painted wood, beads, rhinestones, sequins, glitter and nail
On view
Media - 2017.34.2 - SAAM-2017.34.2_1 - 133409
Out for Christmas Trees
Date1946
oil on pressed wood
Not on view
Media - 2015.58.34 - SAAM-2015.58.34_1 - 121590
Untitled (Seated Hessian Soldier)
Dateca. 1924 - 1950
painted wood
On view
Media - 2015.47.2 - SAAM-2015.47.2_1 - 122014
Untitled
Date2013
ballpoint pen on paper with tape
Not on view
Media - 2016.14.2 - SAAM-2016.14.2_2 - 129301
Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing)
Dateca. 1939-1940
opaque watercolor and pencil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1986.65.228 - SAAM-1986.65.228_1 - 58058
Gorilla
Date1976
carved and painted cottonwood with glue and sawdust
Not on view
Media - 1992.120 - SAAM-1992.120_1 - 11622
African Jungle Picture: If the Ladies Had Knew the Snakes…
Date1989
enamel, industrial sealing compound, wire on wood
On view
Media - 1990.97.3 - SAAM-1990.97.3_1 - 54765
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
Dateca. 1955-1970
oil on paperboard
On view
Media - 1988.74.6 - SAAM-1988.74.6_1 - 10623
THE LORD WILL DELIVER HIS PEOPLE ACROSS JORDAN
Date1976
enamel on fiberboard
On view

Related Artists

Consuelo González Amézcua
born Piedras Negras, Mexico 1903-died Del Rio, TX 1975

Consuelo "Chelo" González Amézcua was a self-taught artist born in Piedras Negras, Mexico, in 1903. She immigrated to the United States in 1913.

Media - portrait_image_114964.jpg - 115583
Felipe Archuleta
born Santa Cruz, NM 1910-died Tesuque, NM 1991

Felipe Archuleta makes his sculptures out of wood and other materials he finds himself or obtains from his neighbors. He uses carpenter's tools to fashion the various parts of each work, and nails and glue to assemble them.

Media - portrait_image_113478.jpg - 89939
Alexander Bogardy
born Hungary 1901-died Washington, DC 1992

Alexander Bogardy immigrated to America as a young child and settled in Baltimore. He changed careers frequently during his life, spending time as a violinist, boxer, mechanical engineer, and cosmetologist before he turned to painting.

Media - Butler_David.jpg - 144026
David Butler
born Good Hope, LA 1898-died Morgan City, LA 1997

David Butler was born in Good Hope, Louisiana, not far from New Orleans. Raised to revere biblical scripture and spirituality, Butler’s worldview became a cultural fusion.

Media - Castle_James.jpg - 144027
James Castle
born Garden Valley, ID 1899-died Boise, ID 1977

James Castle lived his whole life in the Boise Basin of Idaho. He was deaf from birth, and despite some schooling, never became fluent in alternative forms of communication such as lipreading, signing, reading, or writing.

Ulysses Davis
born Fitzgerald, GA 1913-died Savannah, GA 1990

Davis developed his wood-carving skills on his own over a period of more than fifty years, beginning during his childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Thornton Dial, Sr.
born Emelle, AL 1928-died McCalla, AL 2016

Thornton Dial was born into a sharecropping family in rural Alabama, on the eve of the Great Depression. He experienced the trauma and tumult of both Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement. Profoundly influenced by Dr.

Sam Doyle
born St. Helena Island, SC 1906-died St. Helena Island, SC 1985
William Edmondson
born Nashville, TN 1874-died Nashville, TN 1951

William Edmondson, son of Tennessee slaves, did not consider himself an artist when he began carving around 1932, after retiring from his job as a laborer.

Ralph Fasanella
born New York City 1914-died Yonkers, NY 1997

Ralph Fasanella celebrated the common man and tackled complex issues of postwar America in colorful, socially-minded paintings. Fasanella was born in the Bronx and grew up in the working-class neighborhoods of New York.

Media - finster_howard_2.jpg - 89997
Howard Finster
born Valley Head, AL 1916-died Rome, GA 2001

The Reverend Howard Finster is perhaps the most famous religious artist alive today.

James Hampton
born Elloree, SC 1909-died Washington, DC 1964

Little is known about James Hampton, despite the grandeur of his self-chosen title, "Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity." He was born in 1909 in Elloree, South Carolina, a small community of predominantly African-American sharecropper

Media - Harvey_Bessie.jpg - 144031
Bessie Harvey
born Dallas, GA 1929-died TN 1994

Bessie Harvey used branches, roots, and found objects in sculptures that embody personal spirituality and speak about life’s challenges.

Lonnie Holley
born Birmingham, AL 1950
Media - Hunter_Clementine.jpg - 144033
Clementine Hunter
born near Cloutierville, LA 1886/7-died near Natchitoches, LA 1988
On a Louisiana plantation built on the labor of enslaved workers and reinvented, in the twentieth century, as an artists’ and writers’ retreat, Clementine Hunter painted everyday scenes she felt historians overlooked.
Media - Miller_Dan.jpg - 144040
Dan Miller
born Castro Valley, CA 1961

Miller was born in California’s Castro Valley in 1961 and joined Creative Growth, the same art studio where Judith Scott worked, in 1992. There he began making large, abstracted graphic works that function as communiqués in a self-shaped language.

Media - 1986.65.186 - SAAM-1986.65.186_1 - 9799
Sister Gertrude Morgan
born Lafayette, AL 1900-died New Orleans, LA 1980

Gertrude Morgan was raised as an active member of the Southern Baptist church. "My heavenly father called me in 1934 . . . . Go ye into yonder's world and sing with a loud voice you. . .

Grandma Moses sits posing in a chair
Grandma Moses
born Greenwich, NY 1860-died Hoosick Falls, NY 1961

Anna Mary Robertson Moses grew up on a farm in upstate New York, where she worked as a hired girl, helping neighbors and relatives with cleaning, cooking, and sewing.

Eddy Mumma
born Milton, OH 1908-died Gainesville, FL 1986
J. B. Murray
born Sandersville, GA 1908-died Sandersville, GA 1988
Horace Pippin
born West Chester, PA 1888-died West Chester, PA 1946
Martín Ramírez
born Jalisco, Mexico 1895-died Auburn, CA 1963

Ramírez left Mexico as a young man to seek employment in the United States.

Media - Rizzoli_Achilles.jpg - 144037
Achilles G. Rizzoli
born Point Reyes, CA 1896-died San Francisco, CA 1981
Media - portrait_image_113660.jpg - 90355
Jon Serl
born Olean, NY 1894-died Lake Elsinore, CA 1993

According to Jon Serl, this painting began one afternoon with the drawing of a neighborhood boy who interrupted Serl's painting.

Media - portrait_image_114972.jpg - 136176
Bill Traylor
born near Pleasant Hill, AL ca. 1853-died Montgomery, AL 1949

Bill Traylor was born around April 1, 1853, on the Alabama plantation of John Getson Traylor in Dallas County, near the towns of Pleasant Hill and Benton. Traylor and his siblings were born enslaved, as their parents had been.

Melvin Way
born Ruffin, SC 1954
George Widener
born Covington, KY 1962
Media - willeto_charlie_with_family.jpg - 90564
Charlie Willeto
born Nageezi, Navajo Reservation (Dineteh), NM 1906-died Nageezi, Navajo Reservation (Dineteh), NM 1964

A traditional Navajo sheepherder, Charlie Willeto began carving in the early 1960s, only a few years before his death.

Media - Young_Purvis.jpg - 144039
Purvis Young
born Miami, FL 1943-died Miami, FL 2010

Purvis Young paints on scrap lumber and plywood that he scavenges from the streets and vacant lots of Overton, the historically black neighborhood where he lives in Miami, Florida, and whose long deterioration he has witnessed.

Albert Zahn
born Natelfitz, Germany 1864-died Baileys Harbor, WI 1953
Emery Blagdon
born Callaway, NE 1907-died Callaway, NE 1986

Exhibitions

Media - 2013.8.28 - SAAM-2013.8.28_1 - 88697
Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits
February 27, 2015August 1, 2015
The Mingering Mike collection comprises artworks constructed as part of the artist’s youthful fantasy of becoming a famous soul singer and songwriter, including LP albums made from painted cardboard, original album art, song lyrics and liner notes, self-r
Media - 2013.27.1 - SAAM-2013.27.1_2 - 92204
Untitled: The Art of James Castle
September 25, 2014February 1, 2015
In 2013 the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired 54 pieces by James Castle (1899-1977). With this acquisition, the museum now holds one of the largest public collections of Castle’s work.
Family Supper, by Ralph Fasanella
Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget
May 1, 2014August 2, 2014
Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) celebrated the common man and tackled complex issues of postwar America in colorful, socially-minded paintings.
Media - 2016.14.5 - SAAM-2016.14.5_2 - 129305
Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor
September 27, 2018April 7, 2019
Bill Traylor is regarded today as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. His drawn and painted imagery embodies the crossroads of multiple worlds: black and white, rural and urban, old and new.