Interesting Ideas

Ad for potholder loom, 1960 Pack-O-Fun


The Art of Popular Craft

To understand the legacy of craft items left by the last century, we must define the universe we are talking about. Even a partial list of qualifying arts and crafts spans genres from the essentially pre-industrial to materials manufactured and marketed exactly for the uses to which they were put. These are among the forms of self-expression most available to the artistically untaught:
  1. Beaded baskets
  2. Beaded flowers
  3. Beaded fruit
  4. Beer-can hats and toys
  5. Bird houses
  6. Bottle-cap baskets
  7. Bottle-cap chains
  8. Bottle-cap figures
  9. Bottle-cap furniture
  10. Bottle-cap miscellaneous constructions
  11. Button pictures
  12. Calligraphy
  13. Ceramics
  14. Christmas ornaments
  15. Church banners
  16. Cigar-band collage
  17. Clothespin constructions
  18. Coconut heads
  19. Copper-plate reliefs
  20. Crocheted dolls
  21. Cut-out lawn ornaments
  22. Decorated hangers
  23. Decorated pillows
  24. Decoupage
  25. Door stops
  26. Driftwood sculpture
  27. Embroidery
  28. Folded wrappers (cigarettes, gum, etc.)
  29. Funnel constructions
  30. Greeting-card baskets
  31. Hair pictures
  32. Hooked rugs
  33. Homemade clothing
  34. Horseshoe sculptures and furniture
  35. Jewelry
  36. Junk sculptures
  37. Knick-knack shelves
  38. Knitting
  39. Macaroni pictures
  40. Macramé
  41. Make-do (pin cushions, etc.)
  42. Matchstick models and other constructions
  43. Memory objects
  44. Needle point
  45. Nut sculptures
  46. Paint By Numbers
  47. Painted Mrs.
  48. Painted saws
  49. Popsicle lamps and other constructions
  50. Pop-top constructions
  51. Postage-stamp collage
  52. Pot holders
  53. Quilts
  54. Recycled items
  55. Root sculptures
  56. Rubber-band balls
  57. Safety-pin baskets and jewelry
  58. Scrap books
  59. Shell constructions
  60. Seed art
  61. Smoking stands (silent butlers)
  62. Sock monkeys
  63. Sparkplug sculptures
  64. Spin art
  65. Spool furniture
  66. Spoon sculptures
  67. String art
  68. String balls
  69. Tin-can furniture
  70. Tool furniture and fences
  71. Toothpick constructions
  72. Tramp art
  73. Trench art
  74. Twig furniture
  75. Watch-part pictures
  76. Whimsy bottles
  77. Whittling (whimsies)
  78. Wood burning
  79. Woven baskets
  80. Yoyo dolls
Saint in a Ham Can,from Intuit's Outside the Lines show, collection of Ruth Lopez Wisconsin Tall Boy Bottle-Cap Figure, collection of Bill Swislow

Pulltab outfit, from Intuit's Outside the Lines, Herman Divers, Courtesy Grassroots Art Center, Lucas, Kansas Potholder quilt, from Intuit's Outside the Lines, collection of Maggie Roche Mass of sock monkeys, collection of Lynne Bailey

This broad swath of activity demonstrates the wide range of the creative spirit, and the creators, from conventional hobbyists to shop-class teenagers to folks trying to put some extra change in their pockets to people for whom crafts represent a sudden and never-repeated burst of activity. Certain common qualities become evident in the best of their output, however, representing a framework for judging the artistic merit of handicraft art:

  • Expressive Content
  • Formally fascinating
  • Evocative
  • Amazing
  • Weird

    EXPRESSIVE CONTENT
    The specific content a maker puts into a creation can result in an object of beauty, or at least an object beautiful in its expression. Hooked rugs and needlepoint commonly convey significant personal meaning. Even in forms as artistically undemanding as bottle-cap figures and sock monkeys, makers add details that are acutely personal, such as decorating a bottle-cap doll with electrical outlets rather than the conventional pair of ashtrays, or sewing nuanced details into the usually simplistic faces of sock monkeys to supply highly distinct personalities.

    EVOCATIVE
    Button-encrusted bear, from Intuit's Outside the Lines, collection of Lisa Stone and Don Howlett Some objects are appealing because of the memories they evoke. While nostalgia isn't on the aesthetic high road, successful representations of a former time or place can be uncanny. If sock monkeys resonate with childhood for many people, the most interesting ones can transcend immediate personal associations. The folks in the 1970s who clothed their sock monkeys in garish Superfly outfits created works that are unusual and successful art because they so accurately reflect the look and feel of their time. They depart from convention to speak eloquently of the past.

    FORMALLY FASCINATING
    The physical form of the work can be inherently compelling as the untrained artist's confrontation with craft materials results in innovative geometries. In accumulative crafts like bottle-cap and tramp art, repetition of the same basic forms (bottle caps, sections of serrated wood) can generate patterns of striking complexity. As the repetition mounts, so does the fascination of the patterns.

    AMAZING
    The most impressive craft objects stand out because they evidence extreme degrees of expression. The massive buildup of materials in the largest examples of tramp art can inspire awe. Painstaking craftsmanship can likewise fascinate, capturing something of the essence of the maker even at the small scale seen in, say, soap carvings or fine embroidery.

    WEIRD
    To be honest, some of this stuff is notable specifically because it is weird - sometimes in the sense of eccentrically personal, sometimes bizarrely unattractive. But an object's awfulness does not make it uninteresting. A work of monumental ugliness reflects an exceptional commitment to a personal vision. And the more elaborate the macramé or junk sculpture, the more fascinating the art.

    Art images: Wisconsin Tall Boy Bottle-Cap Figure, collection of Bill Swislow; Saint in a Ham Can,from Intuit's Outside the Lines show, collection of Ruth Lopez; Pulltab outfit, from Intuit's Outside the Lines, Herman Divers, Courtesy Grassroots Art Center, Lucas, Kansas; Potholder quilt, from Intuit's Outside the Lines, collection of Maggie Roche; Mass of sock monkeys, collection of Lynne Bailey; Button-encrusted bear, from Intuit's Outside the Lines, collection of Lisa Stone and Don Howlett.

  • 1960 Pack-O-Fun monkey sock ad 1955 Pack-O-Fun directions for sock monkeys 1927 Popular Mechanics instructions for a smoking stand

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Outsider magazine, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

    Outside the Lines: Ordinary Pastimes, Extraordinary Art was curated by Cheri Eisenberg and Bill Swislow. It runs through August 28, 2004 at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago.

    Back to main article | See the show

    The Latest Stuff | Roadside art | Outsider pages | The idea barn | About | Home


    Copyright Interesting Ideas 2004