This photo essay is from a Summer road trip around the lower half of Lake Michigan. Mostly in search of the beach, I’ll be honest, but also as a scouting mission to find out what folk art presents itself along the way. My mind has been filtering for living traditions, hidden in plain sight. Decorative marks form visual languages, speaking to our relationship with the landscape, telling of the ways we are beholden to and in love with creation. Traumatized by our collective past, we’ve stopped making folk art like we used to, stopped celebrating nature due to a psychic disconnection from it – as though we have been shot into space. Disoriented, we can start bringing ourselves back down to Earth, grounding through interaction with our local ecologies and healing community by observing ancestral art forms. This is an exploration of current stories being actively translated into new symbolic expressions.
A few days into this adventure, I found wooden clogs still hand-turned on a traditional lathe at Neli’s Dutch Village in Holland, MI. The clogs arose as an adaptation to the environment, as the Dutch lived in marshy lowland areas where wooden shoes held up better than leather. As a nation of immigrant colonists, we hold on to symbols of place and belonging – like the clogs – well beyond their usefulness in our present environment. These become touchstones for a past we can only imagine – anchoring romantic ideas about our origins. We tend to gloss over cross-cultural influences such as the color and patterns of Delftware ceramics, which came from trade and colonization in India, China and Japan on the part of the Dutch East India Company. Looking to common elements shared between art traditions can inform the new connective tissues we need to grow in place to mend past cultural wounds.
When Americans retell stories of our heritage, many of us are such an amalgam of ancestry, or our families have been cast so wide from their geographic center, that we feel of everywhere and nowhere at once. We are exposed to all cultures but only belong to one forming a vacuum pulling us toward technological baphomet. The ubiquitous LCD screen has replaced the solar center of the cosmos, an innovation made possible by endless responses to war. Founded by puritans, the place we call home was once sanitized through the removal of indigenous peoples, re-populated by waves of displaced European settlers and built on the forced labor of brown skinned peoples everywhere. Rituals like Henry Ford’s American ‘Melting Pot’, a theatrical re-casting of ethnic immigrants into the ideal American workforce, also contribute to a shadow landscape. Until we embrace all of the nuance in these stories, normative narratives will continue to drain away colors, forms and vibrancy that grow from re-establishing roots in a new environment.
Later, at the Field Museum in Chicago, I visit with Neolithic hominids modeled in wax. With placards that talk about universal biological origins, they cite the first evidence of art as only having evolved some 40,000 years ago. Magical cave paintings manifesting a good hunt, stone fertility goddesses, shards of coiled pottery and shell necklaces – all just a drop in the bucket to the endless procession of time. Another paragraph speaks to the power of symbolic thinking, which allowed us to communicate through imagery. Tribalism strengthened our chances for survival, but there’s not been enough time passed since the inception of humanity to transcend hunter-gatherer instincts. It is these very social adaptations that work against our common survival today. The internet is now the ultimate arbiter of truth – and while useful as a tool to unite – also serves to distort perceptions of the real, eroding social fabric and replacing it with digital approximations of tribe via algorithm. We falsely feel connected at the same time as being more isolated than ever, each social cell referencing the web for validation within a proliferation of separate identity bubbles.
Anthropological collections in natural history museums make me feel uncomfortable. I can feel the objects encased behind glass vibrating with energy, held captive against their original intended uses. But I was glad to see that the Field had addressed this by inviting indigenous artist Chris Pappan to disrupt the display of Native American cultural objects by interjecting his own contemporary ledger art and commentary. He reminds the viewer to that these objects come from powerful living traditions, which will not be relegated to the past. Spending time studying patterns on pre-Colombian clay ladles and other highly ornamented utilitarian objects tell us about traditions wherein art, life and magic weren’t separated – but brought together. These objects reinforced cosmology through visual stories put to use in the everyday. On my way out I find Hatian Veves in the gift shop. Stemming from African sigils to call on the Loa, or spirits of Voodoo and Hoodoo practitioners, real magic is hidden in plain sight, disguised as souvenir.
The last stop was in Spring Green, WI, near Baraboo – the wintering grounds of P.T. Barnum & Bailey’s Circus – and home to Taliesin, Frank Loyd Wright’s homestead and school of Prairie-style architecture. For my finale, I tour House on the Rock, a surreal and seemingly endless compound that houses the life’s work of one Alex Jordan. A Madison rich kid and would-be outsider artist, he succeeded only in becoming architect of the ultimate Weird U.S. roadside attraction. One of those things that can be explained, though not understood until you’ve been, the kitsch is overwhelming, as are unique odors trapped in red shag carpeting throughout. Here, Great Lakes maritime artifacts like nautical sextants, tabletop compasses, examples of scrimshaw and a giant battle between squid and whale invokes imagery from the novel Moby Dick – a story that centers around man’s obsession with conquering nature. All of these things are evidence of folk arts of the past, and fodder for fresh interpretations in the present. There is plenty of material to work with here and everywhere when we look thoughtfully for it.