While in Santa Fe, New Mexico I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of International Folk Art. This museum has been on my radar ever since I discovered the work of Alexander Girard, architect, interior designer, furniture designer, and textile designer.
Alexander and his wife, Susan, began collecting folk art (particularly Mexican folk art) starting in the 1930's. Many tourists have done the same, but Alexander and Susan Girard "recognized the aesthetic value of this art immediately". The Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art is made up of over one hundred thousand objects drawn from over one hundred countries. When you step into the Girard wing of the museum, it's absolutely overwhelming. Brightly colored and immensely dense, the exhibit weaves a maze around dozens of intricately arranged dioramas. Textiles hang from the rafters and religious statues loom from above cases. It's a sensory overload, but in the best way.
The definition of the term "folk art" remains vexing even to scholars in the field. There are two schools of thought: one where a sense of community (i.e. made from indigenous cultures) holds sway and the other in which individual creativity is heavily emphasized. In contrast to fine art, folk art is purely decorative and utilitarian. The interesting thing to me about folk art is that it seems to come from an uncorrupted urge (or call) to be creative, whether it be in clay, fiber, wood, or tin cans. I imagine most the artisans in the exhibit never went to school for art, and that is what makes their creative expressions so pure and true.