Dueling Art History Books: “Essays in Folk Art” and “Outsiders”

To buy these books, click on the covers.

Outsider Art and Folk Art, folk art and outsider art.  Two eras of contemporary art.  People who have read my earlier entries can tell that Folk and Outsider Art do not belong in my top ten favorite art movements.  In fact, I considered the style too much of a Hildegard of Bingen imitation.  Plus, I do not find it all that aesthetically interesting.  However, after reading Essays in Folk Art by Dr. A. Everette James who wrote this in 2000, I am changing my attitude towards it.  I also review another book about Outsider Artists published in 2008 and show differences found between the two books.

  In the book, Dr. James covers the Southern Folk Art scene from the Carolinas to Georgia and going as far as Florida.  He clearly enjoys the Folk/Outsider art world and with his infectious writing, I felt the same.  Furthermore, he writes each essay with the informal nature of a journal entry.  Each artist he encounters, he describes the journey he took when before reaching his goal.  I understand why he does this.  He wants to illustrate the reclusive nature of the artists and the environment he sees first hand.  Thanks to Dr. James’s writing, I found the artists more interesting than the art itself.  I adored the colorful personalities of each one he profiled.

 Out of all the artists featured, I loved the Root artists.  The way they turn wood into sculpture displays a vast amount of creativity.  My main complaint about this book comes from the visual accompaniments.  If one wanted nice color reproductions, expect disappointment.  This book only has black and white photos of artists posing with their creations.

On the other side of the coin, comes the book Outsiders: Art By People by Steve Lazarides.  Where Essays in Folk Art came in a small hardback with a warm color scheme, this one came in a large paperback that had a cold, urban feel to it.  I write this because of the art showcased here consists of graffiti and sculpture that takes place in cities.  The artists here do not center their art around religion the way the Folk artists featured in James’s book do.  They focus more on popular culture, politics, sexual matters and their own irreverent take on it.  That does not mean that Folk Art deals only with the safe and neutral.  However, Folk art does sometimes veer into the delightfully grotesque, such as the face jugs of the Craig Family.  Plus, the book does not just focus on American artists, but artists from around the world from Germany to Jerusalem.  Then again, Random House UK did publish this book.

Instead of essays, Lazarides has profiles of artists he features along with their work.  Similar to James, he shows his love and appreciation to the artists he has featured in this book.  Another common theme that these two books share comes from the artists themselves.  While some artists have everyday names, others have nicknames or names that give them this mythical status.  The difference comes from Folk Artist’s names that have religious connotations.  The Outsider artists have more secular sounding names.   Another difference also exists.  Whereas Folk art revels in the abstract style with untrained artists, the Outsiders create art occasionally with a naturalistic and correctly proportioned look to them.  Regarding that, I think it makes whatever message they promote all the more powerful.  The realism gives more impact.

On the other hand, Outsiders has something that Essays in Folk Art does not.  Unlike Essays, the reproductions in Outsiders come in large, full-page color photographs.  They pop out at you with their subjects and messages.

As I finish up this review, I wonder, what makes a Folk Artist and what makes an Outsider Artist?  I realize this because I am judging these scenes by these books.  For as long as I known about Folk artists, I have heard others call them Outsider Artists.  I do not have the James book with me and I do not remember him labeling the artists as Outsiders.   However, he often meets them in isolated locations.  In short, can one exchange one title over another?   Also, when I showed the Lazarides to some sequential artist friends, they saw the people featured and they exclaimed, “They’re not Outsiders, they have careers on Adult Swim!” I will expand more about this in either this post or another in the future.

The final verdict?  Buy Essays in Folk Art for the writing, but purchase the Outsiders book for the reproductions.

ETA: Tweaked a few things here, added a few links there.


  1. The book by James sounds especially interesting to me (although I also love to look at great reproductions – I might need to check out the “Outsiders” book too).

    I really gained a new appreciation for folk art after visiting a permanent collection exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum a few years ago. Although some may call folk art “uncouth” or “unrefined” there is an element of genuine-ness and frankness that I really enjoy. From that I gather, it sounds like the artists in James’ book are really creative, interesting individuals. I look forward to reading the book. Thanks for the recommendation.

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