Folk art high on Georgia Museum of Art’s wish list


Georgia Museum of Art

Location: University of Georgia campus, Athens

What: “Recent Acquisitions”

When: Through Oct. 6.

Expect to see: The exhibit displays highlights from the museum’s permanent collection that have been acquired over the past four years through donations.

Information and hours: 706-542-4662,

The Georgia Museum of Art wants to increase its offerings of folk art and work by other self-taught artists.

And the museum, at the University of Georgia, is doing so piece by piece.

Folk art “is still small, but a rapidly growing presence,” said Hillary Brown, director of communications for the Athens-based museum, which recently expanded. “It’s one of those things that snowballs. As you get better known for it, you attract more gifts and better gifts. There’s a growing appreciation and acknowledgment that folk art is a valid art form.”

And that’s a good thing, said O.L. Samuels, an 81-year-old Tallahassee-based folk artist and minister.

The museum is presenting a general exhibition of recent acquisitions through Oct. 6, which includes highlights from the museum’s recent additions to the permanent collection and is an effort to reflect its diversity.

The 28 items in “Recent Acquisitions” include paintings, decorative arts and wood sculptures including work by Samuels.

“We’ve been around a long time when we didn’t get much attention,” he said. Folk art, sometimes used interchangeably with primitive art, “has been around since the beginning of the world. Jesus was an artist. Noah was a shipbuilder but he was a folk artist. What makes artists special, they do things in a way that is noticeable. He built an ark.”

Samuels uses tree branches, stumps and anything wood to make birds, dogs, lions and fish and decorates them. One such carving is an eagle that he said “brought the devil to Earth.”

Other items in the exhibit include works by Alfred “Big Al” Taplet and Joe Key.

Folk artists whose work is featured prominently in the galleries include: Thornton Dial, Howard Finster, R.A. Miller, Lorenzo Scott, Purvis Young and Charlie Lucas.

There’s not been a long history of collecting folk art at the museum, which was founded in 1945 and has a heavy focus on fine arts and decorative arts, Brown said.

Some people may split hairs about what defines folk art or what it’s called, but it’s generally made by artists who have not received training in art school. “I think people argue over that a lot,” she said. Some might consider it crude. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of feel.”

Folk art, “in my mind, is a broad, umbrellalike phrase that defines the art of ordinary people with no, or very little, academic training in the fine arts,” said Paul A. Manoguerra, director and curator of the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and formerly chief curator and curator of American Art at the Georgia Museum of Art.

He’d argue, though, that American folk art has “long-standing credibility as part of American visual and material culture, and it had golden eras in museums during the 1930s and again around the 1976 bicentennial.”

What has changed, he said, is “the designation of mid- to late-20th-century folk — and all its variations: outsider, self-taught, vernacular, etc. — as ‘contemporary’ art.”

Brenda Thompson, a collector who splits her time between Connecticut and Atlanta, and her husband, Larry, have donated work to the Athens museum, focused mainly on trained artists, but she wants to see more folk art, particularly by African-American artists, in the mix.

“Folk artists have the same passion to paint and create as trained artists,” she said. And she thinks they’re worthy to be included in any exhibit. “Folk art used to be separated from the mainstream art,” she said, “but it stands on its own.”

Nakasi Herbert, an 18-year-old UGA freshman who plans to major in international affairs, recently visited the museum and paused at the small collection of folk art.

“It interests me a bit more than the older pieces,” she said. “It has a deeper meaning. Art doesn’t have to be sophisticated, and there’s no set definition of what is art. To me, it can be anything, really.”