Art of the Everyday Man

Art of the Everyday Man  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie's.

Folk music is the music of the common folk in the same way that folk art is the art of the everyday person.  The innate talent of these homespun artists hasn’t been buffed with academic training and exposure to the masters of the past.   

She painted from the top down. That is, first the sky, then mountains, hills, houses, cattle and finally people. Everything’s layered. Children seem to get that naturally and Moses never lost it.  
— Grandmas Moses

They don’t often know or really care about such things and their work works. It’s enchanting.  

It’s the vintage duck decoy, faded tavern sign and child’s embroidered sampler. It’s the basketry, sculpture, and utensils of the untrained and often anonymous craftsman. They’re our culture’s social historians and their craftsmanship shows up in paint, wood, stone, metal, clay and cloth.     

It’s Grandma Moses in all her glory announcing her gift through unsophisticated and uncomplicated paintings.  

The bright, bold colors in folk art are childlike and the scenes often include lots of decoration like animals, trees, waterfalls, children, fruit, you name it.

The folk artist isn’t concerned about realistic size and scale. One person in the painting might be huge and everybody else tiny.  It’s his way of telling us who’s really important here.   

The idea of perspective, what’s near and what’s far away, doesn’t seem to matter either.  Forms are distorted and often stylized.  Straightforward and undemanding. Folk art is art without all the hoopla.  It doesn’t leave you scratching your head about its meaning.

Grandma Moses said she painted from the top down.  That is, first the sky, then mountains, hills, houses, cattle and finally the people.  Everything’s layered. Children seem to get that naturally and Moses never lost it.  

You’ll find folk art in virtually every indigenous culture around the globe. It’s one of the ties that bind human beings culture- to-culture. Deciding what’s good and not so good comes down to a matter of taste and instincts.  

No folk art collector understood that more than Kristina Barbara Johnson.   Her collection of folk art pieces numbered in the thousands.  Each and every object in the collection came with its own story.   

Johnson’s life has been described as a voyage of discovery. The lawyer and art collector was that way about people, places and the folk art objects she treasured.

“(Kristina) was a passionate collector, intent on living with her objects and being surrounded by their aura of individual creativity and purpose,” said friend and fellow collector, Ralph Esmerian.  

Born in Germany, Johnson loved anything and everything American.   And it wasn’t just folk art.  She had a whaling collection of artifacts, books and manuscripts as well. Through the collection she became an authority in the field, founding the Whale Research Foundation in Princeton, N.J. 

Johnson drove and collected vintage American cars.  She opened her home for adults and children to share in her collections as well as explore the garden and feed her 200-plus-year-old pet tortoise, George, who had been a member of Queen Victoria’s court. Johnson also had one of the largest hooked rug collections in the country.  

She passed away peacefully on April 18, 2013.         

On Jan. 23, a selection of folk art pieces from Johnson’s collection went on the block at Christie’s, New York.  

Folk Art

Boxing Figural Group; on associated stand; polychrome-decorated wooden boxing figures; American 20th century; 11 ½ inches by 14 inches;  $6,875.

Horse; carved walnut figure, American probably Midwestern; circa 1880; 23 ¼ inches by 25 ½ inches;  $18,750.  

“Gen. Washington Noblest of Men/ His House His Horse His Cherry Tree and Him;” wool pictorial hooked rug; American early-20th century; 30 ½ inches by 53 inches; $30,000.    

Lady Liberty; carved walnut figure; American 19th century; 18 5/8 inches high overall; $20,000. 


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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