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"Reading" a Great Folk Art Painting Story
Posted 7 Nov 2012, by Don
Typically a folk artist tells a story with his paintings, using his unique artistic abilities and the story he has held within his mind's eye. Our enjoyment of the piece can be heightened by reading these story elements. For example, look at this wonderful painting of a mill town, ca. 1860's, in Northern Pennsylvania: The primary story that the folk artist is telling through this painting is the mill town's PRIDE that it has risen above agriculture-only to making things, the town is bustling, the town is on the map! And that one can advance to higher levels within this community. What are story elements that show this? First, the town has a train. Only populations centers with significant need for goods and people to be carried in and out were serviced by a train. And the town has this new communications tool called "telegraph"!   The owner of the mill has a house on a scale similar with the factory itself! This communicates that the owner is doing well, and that this house indeed is of that of the owner.  

Further, the tiny trees in a neat row across the front indicate fresh plantings and that the house is newly built.

The owner is not the only resident doing well. The worker houses are neatly arranged in rows, with attached outbuildings. And the larger house to the right likely is that of the foreman or factory manager who's position and pay permit a much larger home. Note the lack of run down buildings or debris. Debris is almost never seen in a painting that is an idealistic rendering, don't want to show clutter that might suggest otherwise. Work is going on (windows in the factory are open) and few workers seen outside, yet carriages dot the streets showing how active the town is.

The town has not lost sight of its farming roots, as can be seen by the garden to the right of the foreman's house:   What often makes a folk painting unique is the stylistic renderings. Great examples in this painting is the design of the row houses, which appear like a preview of 1920's and 30's citiscapes, and the wonderful form and detail of the clouds and trees.   Finally, this story is enhanced by the artist's usage of a warm, inviting, uplifting color pallette:   Most great folk art paintings tell a story. Try to interpret what that story is!