American Folk Art for Kids: With 21 Activities

American Folk Art for Kids: With 21 Activities

by Richard Panchyk


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Drawing on the natural folk art tendencies of children, who love to collect buttons, bottle caps, shells, and Popsicle sticks to create beautiful, imperfect art, this activity guide teaches kids about the history of this organic art and offers inspiration for them to create their own masterpieces. The full breadth of American folk art is surveyed, including painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and textiles from the 17th century through today. Making bubblegum wrapper chains, rag dolls, bottle cap sculptures, decoupage boxes, and folk paintings are just a few of the activities designed to bring out the artist in every child. Along the way kids learn about the lives of Americans throughout history and their casual relationships to everyday art as they cut stencils, sew needlepoint samplers, draw calligraphy birds, and design quilts. Important folk artists such as the last surviving Shakers, the legendary Grandma Moses, and the Reverend Howard Finster are also explored in sidebars throughout the book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556524998
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,173,467
Product dimensions: 11.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.30(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Richard Panchyk is the author of Archaeology for Kids, Franklin Delano Roosevelt for Kids, Galileo for Kids, Keys to American History, Our Supreme Court, and World War II for Kids.

Read an Excerpt

American Folk Art for Kids

With 21 Activities

By Richard Panchyk

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2004 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-119-1


The Origins of Folk Art

When the first art was made, there were no museums, no art schools, and no art supply stores. Our early ancestors created small gray stone sculptures using only basic tools. As time passed, art became more colorful and sophisticated. Ice Age people, who lived 15,000 years ago, decorated the walls of their cave homes. Using natural pigments found in berries and stones to "paint" their designs, they created paintings of deer and horses, and they sometimes left behind human handprints.

Art and Civilization

Beginning around 8,000 to 6,000 B.C, many people all around the world gave up their nomadic lives of hunting and gathering. They learned how to domesticate animals and how to grow, cook, and store their own food. People discovered that they could mold clay (a material dug out of the ground) into any shape and bake it at a high temperature to make it hard and durable. Pots, bowls, jars, and other serving and storage items were common. People also began to weave and sew, and they created clothes and blankets.

With the invention of pottery and textiles, humans had another reason to use artistic decoration. Since people no longer changed residences with the seasons, they could have more possessions. They decorated their permanent possessions, especially items of pottery, with beautiful geometric designs. Many ancient cultures can be identified by the type of design they liked to use. The example shown here is a clay jar from the Majiayao culture of the Chinese Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, which existed over 4,000 years ago. The intricate, often swirly black designs are a characteristic of Majiayao pottery.

As agriculture thrived, tiny villages grew into bustling towns, and towns grew into huge cities of up to 50,000 people. These cities were part of civilizations that had organized forms of government, controlled large territories, and had very active trade with other parts of the world.

By this time, design and decoration were a key part of the human experience. Archaeologists have found beautifully crafted artworks from all major ancient cultures, including Mesopotamia (the Near East), ancient Egypt, Shang dynasty China, Incan Peru, and ancient Greece and Rome. Each of the different civilizations had its own unique customs, traditions, languages, and artistic designs, and each civilization had people whose only job was to paint, sculpt, or craft jewelry. These people became experts and were known as artisans.

But the ancient world did not just consist of a few large civilizations. Thousands of other people still lived in much smaller bands, or tribes. Each of these tribes also had its own unique traditions and artwork. Some groups were warriors or nomads in search of new territory. These tribes helped destroy the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. After the Empire crumbled, the "barbarian" tribes (a Roman term for "uncivilized" people) moved in to control various parts of Europe.

Until about 1000 A.D., roving bands of people continued to migrate from the northern and eastern reaches of Europe and from western and central Asia in search of better land. Some tribal names are familiar, while others have long since faded into obscurity: Pechenegs, Cumans, Angles, Saxons, Gauls, Kimaks, Ghuzz, Khazars, Jutes, Celts, Magyars, Visigoths, Franks, Burgundii, Vikings, Turks, Bulgars, and Normans.

Descendants of many of these ancient ethnic groups still exist. The old Normans are gone, but many English people are of Norman descent. Similarly, Hungary has many Magyar descendants, and many Turkish people are descendants of the Turks.

But even countries that seem to be truly one distinct culture today — Germany, for example — are not really one culture. The people in different parts of Germany are descended from different tribes, so people living in Bavaria (in southern Germany) are different from people living in Thuringia (in central Germany), for example. The differences in their art, food, and music appear slight to the outsider, but they are very clear to the people who live there.

Folk Art Emerges

The number of artisans and craftspeople, who emerged when the first civilizations were created, continued to grow. They were an important part of every town or city, and they had access to the finest materials and tools. By the 13th and 14th centuries, many had begun to form guilds. These guilds were groups that set rules and quality guidelines for a particular craft. The most experienced artists were known as masters, and their assistants and students were called apprentices. Also emerging around this time were talented professional painters who were commissioned to create religious works for churches and portraits for wealthy individuals.

In addition to the trained artists who created art for a living, there were many people who were not professional artists but who also painted and decorated. They did not always have access to the finest materials or tools, but that did not discourage them. Some painted designs on their furniture. Others decorated plain pottery vessels. Some were traveling artists who did not belong to any guild but went from place to place looking for customers. The colorful folk traditions of the "barbarian" tribes continued to be practiced by amateur artists in villages across Europe long after the tribes fell apart. These amateur painters, carvers, and traveling artists were the first true folk artists.

Early folk art designs are still used today. Though many of today's folk art items are mass-produced in factories with scarcely a human hand touching them in the process, their designs date back to art created hundreds or thousands of years ago. Common everyday modern items such as sweaters, wallpaper, and playing cards often feature elaborate colorful designs with long histories attached to them.

The Geography of Folk Art

Folk artists from the same ethnic group do not always create the same type of art. It depends on their environment — what their living conditions are like. For example, take three Ukrainian folk artists. Place one of them in a village by the sea, drop another in a village high up in the mountains, and leave the third in a village deep in the forest. Each one will still be a Ukrainian with Ukrainian traditions and culture, but each will develop new twists on his or her culture as the art is created.

The Ukrainian by the sea might make pictures of ships and make models of fish, use shells to make a mosaic, use coral to make a sculpture, and make a box laden with mother-of-pearl. The Ukrainian in the mountains may paint snowy scenes and make carvings of goats and other mountain animals. Since trees may be hard to find in the mountains, so that artist may make carvings from stone. The Ukrainian in the forest, where there are many trees, might carve walking sticks out of wood, collect leaves and flowers to make a collage, and incorporate bears, deer, rabbits, and other forest animals in his or her artwork.

Similarly, a folk artist who lives in a city will make different artworks than a folk artist who lives in the country or in a suburb. One village may have very different folk traditions from the next one just a few miles away. Village X may lie near a huge field of flowers, while Village Y might stand next to a roaring river. Over time, the inhabitants of each village develop their own unique art. For example, the inhabitants of Kalocsa, Hungary, developed a unique flowery folk art that is not found anywhere else in the world.

Folk artists are influenced by three key things: their own natural talents, the culture they grew up with, and the climate and geography of the places in which they live. This is an important thing to remember when studying folk art in this book. When you look at a piece of folk art, try to guess how the artist's background and location might have affected the art.

American Folk Art

The first true American folk art was created by Native Americans. Migrating from Asia thousands of years ago, hundreds of tribes spread throughout North and South America. Over time, each tribe developed its own artistic traditions. Using animal skins, wood, stone, and natural dyes, Native Americans created colorful masterpieces.

During the early 17th century, Native Americans were joined by the first European settlers, who came at first by the hundreds and later by the thousands and then millions. These immigrants, who came to the United States from hundreds of countries, brought some of their own cultural heritages with them. Waves of people came to the United States because of famine, poverty, and oppression in their homeland. A search for religious freedom brought many 17th-century English immigrants. The Potato Famine of 1848 caused a huge number of Irish people to emigrate. Poverty and hard times in Germany caused large numbers of Germans to sail to the United States during the late 19th century. By the 20th century, immigrants were also streaming in from Asia, Africa, and South and Central America.

Immigrants to the United States tended to settle in different places depending on their country of origin. They spread across the United States in every direction. Many of today's Midwesterners are descended from Scandinavians; Pennsylvanians and Ohioans from Germans; Louisianans from Acadians (from Canada); and New Englanders from English and Irish. Slavery brought many Africans to the southern United States, and the building of the transcontinental railroad brought many Chinese to California.

The Europeans pushed the Native Americans off their land and introduced diseases that killed a great many of them. By the late 19th century, the crush of newcomers to America was so great that the Native Americans were forced onto "reservations," land set aside just for their use. Their cultures still thrived into the 20th century, however, and Native Americans around the country continue to create artworks both for their own use and for tourists.

The new European, African, and Asian arrivals created art in the style of their home countries, and it is this rainbow of immigrant cultures from around the world that gives American folk art its colorful flavor. American folk art has a beautifully mixed heritage that reflects the diversity of the American population.

Though it had existed since the 17th century, American folk art was not truly appreciated until 1924, when the first major folk art exhibit in the country was put together in New York City. Called Early American Art, the exhibit at the Whitney Studio Club featured 45 works of folk art. The timing was right for the exhibit because in the 1920s, people were nostalgic for their past. Civil War (1861-1865) veterans were beginning to die off rapidly, and there were revivals of interest in the Civil War era, as well as in the Colonial and Federal periods (17th to early 19th century). Other museums followed with groundbreaking folk art exhibits during the 1930s. At that point, many masterpieces of American folk art were gathering dust in attics and basements, were part of private collections, or were hanging on the walls of local historical societies in towns across America. During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt's WPA (Works Progress Administration) program cataloged many of the finest pieces of folk art in the country. As the generation that grew up during the Victorian era (middle to late 19th century) grew old during the early and middle 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the art of that time period.

At first, only certain types of artwork, such as folk painting created before 1900, were considered to be folk art. As time passed, though, more and more categories of American arts and crafts were recognized as folk art. A talented woman named Grandma Moses created beautiful nostalgic paintings during the 1940s and 1950s that appealed to millions of Americans. She was the first true living folk art celebrity. Her popularity made it possible for other folk artists to get recognition during their lifetimes.

In 1957, the wealthy Mrs. John D. Rockefeller's large folk art collection found a permanent home in a building in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. By 1961, there was enough interest in folk art that the American Folk Art Museum was established. During the 1960s, the United States Postal Service began to issue stamps celebrating folk art. Around this time, more and more people began to realize that 20th-century folk art could be just as wonderful as 19th-century folk art.

By the 1980s, numerous books about folk art were written, auctions of folk art treasures became a regular happening, and new folk art museums sprang up across the country. Suddenly, pieces of art that had sold for just a few dollars 50 years before were worth thousands of dollars. Today, American folk art keeps growing in popularity. In 2001, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City moved from cramped quarters to a spacious new seven-story building, allowing a much larger stream of visitors to see folk art treasures or do research among the 10,000 books in its collection.

American folk art today boasts a rich diversity and history that few other countries can rival. It is a fun field where new folk art masterpieces are still being created every day in every corner of the country, and where exciting antique finds still turn up. Folk art in America shows just how inventive, creative, and talented ordinary people can be. It shows how Americans recycle scraps of their precious resources such as wood and fabric. Folk art is all about taking advantage of spare time by creating something beautiful.

American folk art is definitely not stuck in the past. It is still going strong today, and it shows no sign of slowing down. The following chapters offer examples of recently created folk art as well as examples of older folk art.


Folk Painting and Drawing

Paintings do much more than capture a fleeting moment. They express our deepest emotions and our wildest imagination, our dearest hopes and our darkest fears. Paintings are powerful objects that can freeze the image of a beloved family member or friend, a quiet day in a farm village, a colorful sunset, or a ship sailing amid a violent storm at sea. Paintings are also decorative items that can brighten up a room and provide enjoyment. People living in big cities may enjoy paintings of the countryside to remind them of the greenery that is missing from their environment.

People who love the sea may fill their homes with paintings of ships and lighthouses, while animal lovers may own wildlife paintings. A wealthy person can buy an expensive painting or commission one (pay for someone to paint exactly what she wants), but it isn't necessary to be rich to own art. Anybody can enjoy owning a painting, whether it's one that's inexpensive to buy or one painted by the owner himself or herself.

Academic Painting and Folk Painting

Throughout recent history, professional artists were often specially trained to paint in certain ways. They learned the popular styles of the day, and their work was accepted by both the art world and their paying customers. To learn their craft, they studied under masters. When they became skilled, they often taught their own students, or apprentices.

This tradition is called academic painting. Not only did academic painters study with trained artists, but they were also part of the local art community. They made friends with other academic painters, were commissioned by rich and famous people to paint, and showed their works at galleries and exhibitions.

Most folk paintings, on the other hand, were done by people who had little or no formal artistic training. They may not have known or cared about the "acceptable" painting styles of the time. These people may not have made a living by making art and probably did not know other artists. The lives of academic painters are well documented in art books, but the lives of most folk painters are not documented. Even today, many folk painters work anonymously, meaning that they do not sign their paintings. Folk paintings are artworks by "common people."


Excerpted from American Folk Art for Kids by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2004 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by William C. Ketchum Jr.,
Foreword by Mr. Imagination,
Introduction: What Is Folk Art?,
1 The Origins of Folk Art,
2 Folk Painting and Drawing,
3 The Decorative Arts,
4 Fabric Sewn and Stitched,
5 Chiseled, Carved, and Hammered,
6 Found Objects and Scraps,
7 Public Folk Art,
Afterword: Folk Art Now,
Museums with Folk Art Collections,
Selected Bibliography,

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