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On The Folk of Art

Folk is not a term I used to describe my art with until I'd been doing it for over a decade. Up until then, for the most part, I had no words for it, no labels. Art was just something which I did, had been doing since childhood, something which I instinctively knew I had to make time for, something which held my interest more than television or companionship or alcohol or anti-depressants or nearly anything else. This is not to say that I did not view art as a way out, not just as a life blood or a calling, but a means to tap into both the boiling soup and nebulous vapor of my interior, and discover how to bring that energy into the physical world. So it goes when one plays God in acts of Creation.

Why I felt I had to make art, and still do, is anybody's guess. Certainly part of it is emotional exploration, a way of conveying marrow-truths, but another part of it has been sheer escapism, retreating not only to lick wounds, but to develop a fantasy where much is beautiful, noble, compassionate and good as opposed to realistically brutal and harsh. Raised in an age of materialism, schooled in cinematic romance and gleaming Hollywood iconography, the idea that my art would one day result in fortune and fame is a fact which I do, with an embarrassment near nausea, also admit to.

The money would have solved some practicalities, such as buying food, cigs, health insurance, paying rent or, at wildest imagining, affording me a chauffeur to attend grand gallery openings.

The other side of such a colossal ego is equally bloated for my artistic ambitions wanted nothing short of salvation on a global, even a celestial scale: to wipe out war, vanquish genocide, have decency and kindness reign as a form of communication between not only humans, but all other species. Pretty grandiose visions for a mere kid with just a box of pastels from the local drugstore.

Still, the myth is that Lana Turner was discovered at such a corner soda fountain, so why not me?

Well, one does get older if not exactly grow up. Also, aside from wishful thinking, it's not as if I slept with the right people or did anything else to really promote myself.

I continued to do art despite lack of fortune and figured I was probably too emotionally immature to handle fame anyway. I think of wonderful comedienne Gilda Radner doing her spoof of the punk goddess Patty Smith, Gilda’s talent agent dumping pills and booze down her throat so she could go pass out at the microscope and thrill her audience. "Give me Mick," she sang. "Rock me and roll me 'til I'm sick."

Yes, that would probably be the sort of wisdom I'd be cranking out, breaking canvasses over my head and sniffing glue instead of making collages with it. Luckily I was born into obscurity and have been able to maintain the same stature. Once a person is able to get beyond a youth of suicidal tendencies then peace of mind in one's middle age really is a great blessing.

I think this is another reason I've come to define my art as folk.

Being too "glassy" around others, I dropped out of art college way back in the nineteen-eighties after only one year of it, and have been more part of the "Outsider" school both before and ever since. This has been true both in my art and my social dealings since I've mainly fallen into jobs where I would work the night shift, often scarcely in the company of others. If there was such company than it was usually those debilitated by illness, either physical or mental. There I felt I could fit in by hiding among the not necessarily socially acceptable. There I felt I could be of use.

Sure, all that time, in secret, I still considered myself primarily to be an artist, but it's only been in the last five years while working a fairly traditional 9 - 5 office gig, that I've actually tried exhibiting art with any sort of consistency. Up until then the paintings just wound up in closets or drawers or occasionally given to a loved one. Surrealism, Expressionism, Evocative Impressionism... yes, over the years I've used all sorts of such terminology to try and describe my work mainly for online galleries, and mainly for a means of marketing, but I know that whatever niche my work might happen to fall in, such terminology is really only a matter of pigeonholing. Whether it be due to Consumerism or the illusory comfort assigned to a token label so a potential buyer may know where to look, I am still not quite at ease with limiting myself to the catchwords of any particular genre.

Spiritual. Sensuous. Religious. Erotic. Whatever topic or content I choose to explore I want to be as open and infinite as the number of mediums and number of artists working today. In all actuality, internationally, just by mere Internet perusal, I see that they number in the millions. I find that fact comforting.

Jane Siberry, the wonderful Canadian singer-songwriter, in a Musician magazine article from the 1990's, mentioned how that when folk music first began, it truly was the music of the people, i.e.: made on instruments of the time and played by people of that time. Therefore, she alluded, that the pop music, the rock music, the new age, the new wave, the alternative etc. music of her time and place was actually, in a way, folk music also, the word "folk" implying the masses.

Such a concept appeals to me for it bespeaks of a universality which I believe all art combined conveys, not that art is some elevated erudite pursuit of a select few the muses smile upon, but that art is in the blood of commonality for all folks everywhere.

Grandma Moses, is another artist who brings such a point home to me. I saw the actress Cloris Leachman do an immensely moving one-woman show about the artist at a local theater some time when I was in my early twenties. At one point in the play, just about to finish a winter landscape on paper, Cloris as Grandma paused, looked at the audience, took a breath and said "Wait, here comes the best part." She then undid a small jar of silver glitter and let the flakes fall onto the painting as snow. "It's the same for folks everywhere," she intimated.

This is another thing which I try to bring to what I do in my workspace, have the eyes and adventure of a child with, from the Craft Store, a fresh package of things to play. Like latter-day cave drawings, such urges are the same the world over whether it be due to a need to make a chalk mark in a rainstorm or a cry of "I am here", and bare witness in the face of mortality.

The novel "Wittgenstein's Mistress" by David Markson paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic world where, as far as she knows, there is one lone survivor. This woman, the narrator, camps out in the great museums of the world, appreciating the grace of the artifacts which surround her, as much as the sorrow in the fact that she sometimes has to burn them for fuel. In quest of such sustenance, such campfires, all artists labor.

Also, in the apocalyptic vein, I now remember an Italian film called, I believe, "Mona Lisa Is Crying", a film in which the painting, like some tabloid headline, does truly weep, and is seen at the end of the film in a pile of fall-out, of nuclear rubble, humanity's best aspirations confronting humanity's worst self-destruction.

Again, all artists, as folks, create aware of such potential outcomes.

In her memoir, "Sister Age", M.F.K Fisher wrote of the peeling painting she discovered in an antique shop during one of her European trips, a painting which was to become the cover for her book. There was the visage of a woman in mid-life from a time past still apparent, content and calm even, peering through the flaking layers. Though the artist remained anonymous that portrait still communicated, ages on, to the soul of M.F.K.

Such correspondence, such conveyance, as a folk artist, is what I aim for my work, usually unsigned, to do, to touch another whom I may not ever know. True, at times this intention falls flat, for I have given paintings to those I love only to later see them remain unframed, crumpled, creased, chipping away, brush stroke by brush stroke, at the back of some closet, and I must tuck in my ego at such evidence, must admit the lesson to myself that the work perhaps was not up to snuff, was deserving of being misunderstood or not cared for. It is a gift where the receiver says, "Oh, how lovely, thank you so much., but really you shouldn't have, no, I wish you hadn't.", which is of course preferable to: " I did not mean to drop it, watch it shatter to bits and kick it all over the place a thousand times over. Silly me, what an idiot."

In the 1982 book "Grace Abounding" by Maureen Howard, the life's work of one of the main characters meets a similar fate, page after page of her manuscripts packaged into garbage bags and driven to a landfill, buried, a neglected time capsule, forevermore. At this stage in the game, all thinking, feeling beings know how the lives of all too many, be they artist or not, come to such ends.

Still, I persist. I think of the lines by the poet Anne Sexton from "The Ambition Bird" where she writes, "I must get a new coffin, a new immortality box. There is folly enough in this one already." I think of those lines in conjunction with my own paintings, so many now of mixed media, glues, glazes, glitter, earth and spices and buttons and stickers and feathers shadowbox- framed and still not sold, still stored in my cellar. What illusory chances for "immortality" do any of them have, and does any of it matter?

I suppose this was another reason I started putting my work together as narrated slideshows, with captions and music, posting them into cyberspace as if I one day will find a way to establish a trust fund for them in my will and keep the messages they carry going on forever.

Still, what is “Forever” and what is the point of that when so much predicts that the natural fuels by which such things run, and because of which humanity wages war, is running out, and such depletion will lead us back to campfires and caves?

Arhanta is a word I first read of in Mark Frost's book "The List of Seven" and have not been able to find in any dictionary elsewhere. The word Arhanta in "The List of Seven" refers to a small number of obscure individuals, separate and unknown to one another in all parts of the globe, individuals whom, by their constant humble meditation and prayer, without acclaim, without notice, keep the planet from sinking into an abyss of extinction. I like to think that this is what all folk artists do, solitary but brimming with internal spiritual benevolence. I like to think of folk artists in conjunction with the word Arhanta and the fable of St. Francis whom, while working in his garden, when told the world is soon to end and is asked what he is going to do, responds: "I will plant one more row."

"Bloom where you are planted," Mother Theresa has been credited for saying, and you can quote me on this: that is exactly what all folk artists do while we can.

A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he's been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. In 2014 he began a webpage to gather various links to his published poetry in one place, Poetry on the Line, Stephen Mead