Folk and Self-Taught Art

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of folk and self-taught art represents the powerful vision of America’s untrained and vernacular artists. Represented in the museum’s collection are pieces that draw on tradition and artworks that reveal a more personal vision.


Artwork Image
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David Butler, Nativity, ca. 1968

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 part 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 to become the cornerstone of a collection that aimed to tell an ever-expanding story of America through the art of its people. 

SAAM’s largest single acquisition of works by self-taught artists came in 1986 with over 500 works from the ground-breaking collection of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., which firmly established the museum’s deep and lasting commitment to work made independent of formal art training. Today this part of SAAM’s collection features over 400 artists and 1,300 works of art.


Recent SAAM exhibitions that have focused on self-taught artists in the collection include Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits,  Untitled: The Art of James Castle and Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget.

Selected Works

Notable self-taught artists in the collection include Chelo Amezcua, Felipe Archuleta, Emery Blagdon, Alexander Bogardy, David Butler, James Castle, Ulysses Davis, Thornton Dial, Sam Doyle, William Edmondson, Ralph Fasanella, Howard Finster, James Hampton, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Clementine Hunter, Dan Miller, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Eddy Mumma, J.B Murray, Martín Ramírez, Achilles Rizzoli, Jon Serl, Bill Traylor, Melvin Way, George Widener, Charlie Willeto, Purvis Young, and Albert Zahn.

The collection also includes 56 quilts from the Corrine Riley collection. These innovative textiles reflect the African American tradition of improvisational quilting, although the identities of their makers have been predominantly lost to time.