“How Edgar Tolson Made It: Oral Sources and Folk Art’s Success” by Julia S. Ardery. The Oral History Review, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 1-18.
In the 1970s, “twentieth century folk and outsider art” emerged as the most recent movement to shake up the avant-garde art world. In this article, Julia Ardery explains the vital role that recorded interviews with the artists played in the movement’s “development and accreditation.” She highlights Edgar Tolson, a Campton, Kentucky man who took up whittling after suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of 53. Tolson would eventually become a darling of the art world, whose sculptures sold for thousands of dollars apiece in the 1990s.
How does this happen? According to Ardery, regional arts organizations, drunk on the flowing teat of the National Endowment for the Arts, used folk art to “project a non-elitist vision of the arts and to boost local pride.” By the late ’70s, however, critical discussions of folk art began appearing in art journals. Since very few galleries displayed it, art collectors began to journey into the hinterland to seek out folk art and its creators. In Tolson’s case, it was AmeriCorps who brought his work into the mainstream lime light. VISTA workers collecting examples of folk crafts took some of Tolson’s handiwork to the Smithsonian. Tolson himself was eventually invited to be a part of the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, where he demonstrated his craft on the Capitol Mall. Folk artists like Tolson were “living proof that the nation’s vernacular arts traditions had survived industrialization and mass production.”
In general, these folk artists were not invited to Washington to represent a presumably “lost culture”, but they were often interviewed by venturesome art collectors. Ardery notes that interviewing “has functioned as folklore’s primary means both for documenting cultural practices and for establishing their ‘folkness,’ their place within a tradition.” Exposing the power of objects to tell a story, collectors Werner and Karen Guntersheimer explained, “We’re interested in their stories….We love it when we can find something where there is some sort of a narrative around the person or the object that intrigues us.” In time, Ardery writes, “Oral history became part of the collecting experience.” In a way, the interview provided authentication for the collector. Another collector stated rather coldly, “It’s much more fun for me to collect living artists when I can meet them and decide whether I think they’re truly naive or primitive.”
In researching Tolson, who passed away in 1984, Ardery conducted interviews with his surviving family and art world contacts to supplement existing recordings done by collectors from 1971 to 1982. She relates an interesting pattern of Tolson’s changing attitudes about his work over that time. Whereas he initially described his carvings as something that was “always in me,” but that “I never would fool with it till I got knocked out of work”, in later interviews he describes them as “a lost art, gone.” In conducting her own interviews, Ardery found that some narrators were only willing to share their true assessments of Tolson’s work after the recorder had been turned off. “Edgar’s things were ugly!” one declared. On the record, however, she believes that the recorded interview, especially on the subject of art, “tends especially toward drama and celebration rather than apathy and indifference.”
In the case of this particular article, the word “history” as included in “oral history” is largely incidental. There is never any mention of the recordings being archived, and the author routinely lumps “oral histories” together with any recorded conversation as sources of equal merit. Nor is the end goal (as muddled as it seems to be), to write any sort of history. In this article the recordings seem merely to be a component of the art piece–as testament to the artist’s ignorance of established methods of aesthetic or critique. The interviews Ardery conducted seem to have been a product of her own curiosity about Tolson, and she used them much in the same way that a journalist would in researching a local human interest story.
However, in the sense that oral histories and the oral tradition have “cultivated a field of folk art appreciation”, I can relate. Richard Cándida Smith wrote that oral histories can “inject history back into an artist’s career and, more importantly, inject the career back into a broader understanding of history.” During my time at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, Morgan Walker led a class on the History of Printmaking in which he spun fascinating anecdotes about the lives of the artists whose work we were studying. That was when I began to see works of art, and indeed all artifacts of material culture, as history. I realized that the artworks I had been conditioned to think of as entries in a particular category or genre were also artifacts of a human life. The oral tradition can have a powerful effect on how we see the world around us. The rise of folk art is but one unique example of that.