The Small Museum of Folk Art is a boxy, enigmatic museum that displays local and regional artists in the semi-rural town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. The museum lies two blocks east of the roundabout on East St and two blocks past the old Chatham County Courthouse, now the Historical Museum, which anchors the roundabout. According to executive director Dave Clark, the museum tells a simple story simply—a story of community and communication, a story of local and Southern traditions.
The Small Museum came about by chance, the result of a serendipitous gift. Before the museum existed, Clark and his wife, Lisa Piper, themselves Minnesota transplants, moved to Pittsboro as proprietors of a café and an B&B on the same acreage. Eventually the two were introduced by a mutual friend to botany professor, curator, and folk art collector Dr. Jim Massey, who has said he collected folk art because it “has a kind of industry” indicative of “people absolutely driven to make art.” Dr. Massy felt his collection needed to be seen and that it wasn’t sufficiently visible, especially in the long run, at his lily farm Haywood Gardens in Moncure. So the three met and, grounded in the stipulation that the 400-plus piece collection not be broken up, Clark and Piper agreed to add a museum to their property, building, in effect, an homage to the irrepressible need of everyday folks to make and create.
There is no settled idea of what “Folk Art” is. The Small Museum itself features an eclectic array of folk art by Howard Finster, Butch Anthony, Vollis Simpson, Grandma Mozelle, Big Chief, Sam “The Dot Man” McMillan, Clyde Jones (a regular at the café), Miz Thang, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and many others. Rooted in colonial American artisanry and handicraft, it is now essentially a synonym for Outsider Art. Holger Cahill, acting director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, referred to it as “art of the common people.” It is also connected to Art Brut (“raw art”), a mid-20th century European avant-garde art movement lead by the French artist Jean Dubuffet that favored spontaneous, crudely finished, yet assured composition.
Folk artists are often self-taught. The work is often visionary or biblically inspired. In many pieces, the use of found or salvaged material adds to a rough finish, one result being a sense of spontaneity and improvisation. Both the artists and the art works are usually peripheral relative to the art market, which only exacerbates the perception of folk art as a “craft” rather than a “fine art.” And, according to Clark, folk art is about connection, especially where it’s associated “with people who have trouble communicating in traditional forms…Some can’t use a phone or drive a car but they articulate what they want through art.” The works are thus intensely personal. They are intentional and inspired, as if responding to some innate urgency in the artist, like a declaration of what it means to be alive and human.
Full of mirth and defiance to the established art world, the entire property exhibits an overwhelming deference to made things and makers, and a sense of boundarylessness. For example, a monumental Kokopelli-like steel Cinderella sweeps the garden, a vinyl Elvis is tacked to the side of an outbuilding, the café walls become an improvised gallery, and the door of the museum is hand-painted with a pastoral garden, inviting all visitors inside. Inside the museum the artworks, switched up a few times a year, are densely displayed, and, without attendant didactics, are largely left to speak for themselves.
The efficacy of showpieces like Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s Matisse-like dog painted with his own “sweet mud” concoction, Randy Tysinger’s memory jugs, or Grandma Mozelle’s bucolic painting “Friends Gathering Flowers at the Mounds” is their captured responsivity to environment. Similarly, Butch Anthony’s untitled multi-media assemblage mounted on wood, is an extraordinary work, and beyond categories--equal parts papier collé, relief sculpture, and portrait/death mask. The ground is a pastiche of images cut from printed matter (map, fashion ads, medical textbook, dictionary page, the word “Bronco”) and glued to the board. The raised elements include an Alabama license plate and a mask-like face made from a torch-cut shovel. Anthony’s work, like the others featured in the museum, takes the South and its things and repurposes them, somehow doing what needs to be done. In the process, these artists exalt the mundane and make us aware of the arresting possibilities present in our everyday lives.