6 Exceptional Folk Art Collections

Experience the ultimate in visionary art.

Have you ever seen a traveling circus built at a 3/8-inch scale out of hand carved wood and consisting of over 1,000 parts including tents, boxcars, caged animals, clowns, acrobats and sideshow attractions? Or did you ever encounter a forest of totems as high as 15 feet made from scrap metal, street markers, toys and other discarded objects? Can you even imagine a musical device that combines a wind-up record player with a sculpture of a hippocerous, an imaginary hybrid of hippopotamus and rhinoceros?

Museum of International Folk Art

Kitty Leaken; Museum of International Folk Art

All of these are the work of folk and self-taught artists who exist outside the mainstream art world. If you’re looking for some alternatives to the traditional museum experience, you’ve come to the right place.

Museum of International Folk Art

IFAF Collection; Museum of International Folk Art

One of the few museums in the U.S. dedicated solely to folk art, the Museum of International Folk Art was created in 1953 and has since grown its collection of 2,500 items (donated by the founder Florence Dibell Bartlett) to more than 130,000 examples of folk art from around the globe. Textiles, ceramics, wood carvings, jewelry, costumes and painting are all in the mix and some of their most popular collections include The Morris Miniature Circus, a lifetime project for Texas farmer W.J. “Windy” Morris, and Sacred Realm which highlights Asian folk art with transcendent power such as deity figures, ritual paintings, ceremonial dance masks and objects with talismanic properties.

The High Museum of Folk Art, Atlanta

Erin Nelson

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is renowned for its permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American art and European art which ranges from the Renaissance to French Impressionism but don't overlook their impressive collection of folk and self taught art. The bulk of their holdings come from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection (donated in 1996) and art patron/gallery owner Judith Alexander, who left the museum 130 works by Atlanta artist Nellie Mae Rowe, famous for her colorful drawings, chewing gum sculptures and art made from recycled objects. The overall emphasis is on Southern artists and features work by such now-famous visionary artists as the Reverend Howard Finster (pictured), Bill Traylor, Ulysses Davis and Mattie Lou O’Kelley.

The Totem Gallery at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas

John Rollins

Felix “Fox” Harris (1905-1985) was a self-taught sculptor who grew up in Texas but didn’t start making art until after his retirement when he was in his mid-50s. He was inspired by a vision from god who told him to “make something’ out of nothin’,” and he set to work creating sculptures made from coffee pots, Venetian blinds, fan blades and discarded plastic and metal pieces. Many of his totem-like structures were designed to move in the wind and often included some of his trademark motifs such as running horses or hands. Over a 25 year period he made 140 sculptures which were displayed in his yard for all to see. After his death, his grandnephew donated his sculptures to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, which is where you can currently view most of his remarkable work.

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton

Smithsonian American Art Museum

When it comes to variety, depth and historical perspective, it is hard to top the Smithsonian American Art Museum which bills itself as “the nation’s first collection of American art” and “an unparalleled record of the American experience.” Along with their impressive holdings of early American, Latino and African-American work, the folk and self-taught art acquisitions are particularly important and include 378 items from collector Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., founder of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. Among these are works by Thornton Dial Sr., Sister Gertrude Morgan, Mr. Imagination (aka Gregory Warmack) and James Hampton, whose spiritual sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, is a highlight (pictured). Composed of gold and silver aluminum foil, glass, paperboard, kraft paper and plastic over wood furniture, this remarkable creation took more than 14 years to complete and stands as the artist’s interpretation of a heavenly vision.

A hand carved musical instrument by 20th century North Carol

Colonial Williamsburg

One of the lesser known gems among folk art collections resides at The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Encompassing over 5,000 objects dating from the 1720s to the present, the collection includes weather vanes, quilts, whirligigs, paintings, furniture and unusual musical instruments such as a piano built into a chest of drawers and North Carolina artist Edgar McKillop’s eccentric combo of a wind-up record player with a mythical animal carving (pictured). Other highlights include the 19th century painting Baby in Red Chair and the Coat of Many Colors Quilt by Arlonzia Pettwayin from Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  

Nine Pins, Shelburne Museum, Vermont

J. David Bohl

Another often-overlooked museum that is best known for its American folk art and quilts is the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Besides a fascinating array of vintage circus memorabilia, dollhouses, automata (large wind-up toys) and paintings by prominent folk artists like Erastus Salisbury Field and Ammi Phillips, the wildfowl and fish decoys are particularly memorable and so are such folk art objects as Nine Pins and Eagle on Uncle Sam’s Hat, which are exquisite examples of carved and painted wood creations from the 19th century (both are pictured).

Shelburne Museum, Vermont

Collection of Shelburne Museum

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