Canceled folk art fests give way to digital marketplaces

Emilee Geist

Decatur Realtor Jack Regan owns a carving of a black cat by Dingler among the 300 or so pieces in his riotously colorful folk art collection. As a longtime patron, he worried his creative friends “literally would not be able to put food on the table.” In March, he founded […]

Decatur Realtor Jack Regan owns a carving of a black cat by Dingler among the 300 or so pieces in his riotously colorful folk art collection. As a longtime patron, he worried his creative friends “literally would not be able to put food on the table.” In March, he founded a Facebook group called Viral Art – Because Kindness is Contagious. Artists are invited to post images of their work — no juries, no commissions. They negotiate prices directly with collectors, keep 100% of the money and manage the shipping and handling themselves.

Tony Dotson, a Cincinnati artist who normally heads south to sell his work, has relied on digital markets in Georgia during the pandemic.
Courtesy of Tony Dotson

Credit: Tony Dotson

Credit: Tony Dotson

“It’s a labor of love,” Regan says of the group that so far has promoted more than 2,000 artists. “We’re not focusing on the famous ones but the lesser known ones who really need help. I don’t know how many pieces we’ve sold so far, and I don’t care.”

Tony Dotson, a Cincinnati artist known for scrap-wood sculptures of King Kong, Batman, Bigfoot and other pop icons, normally treks South to the festivals. He estimates he has sold at least 100 works through Regan’s platform.

“It literally saved my life,” he says. “I lost four or five shows with the virus, and that’s a big chunk of change. Artists like me usually don’t have insurance and live hand-to-mouth anyway. Nobody knew what was going on with the virus or how long we’d be completely shut down. It was scary. This online project has kept me fed.”

Regan also collaborates with Kip Ramey, a Clayton artist and founder of Folk Aid, a similar Facebook group that also promotes galleries, collectors looking to sell and works by deceased artists.

“We share each other’s posts, and then other people share the posts, and they reach a lot of people in every state,” Ramey says. “It’s our way of building each other up.”

Ramey, who paints “red hound dawgs, roosters and old things with memories,” got a firsthand lesson in the seriousness of the coronavirus over the summer when he contracted it himself. “I was in bed for 10 days and unable to work. It was good thing that there was this constant flow of business online. It’s a blessing.”

These platforms have some obvious advantages during this unconventional time.

“People are staying home, not going to museums and galleries or festivals, so we have a captive audience,” Ramey says. “They’re spending more time on their computers anyway, so why not look at art?”

Dotson notes that many artists have reduced their fees, but increased sales compensate for the deficit.

“There’s a lower price point, so people have access to some great bargains right now,” he says. “That has brought in a whole new audience. It’s no longer just purist collectors; it’s newcomers who have never bought a piece of folk art before.”

And, as the Internet has done for all of us, it has extended the artists’ geographical reach.

A “can top art” portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Kip Ramey, who founded the Folk Aid Facebook page as a marketplace for folk art.
Courtesy of Kip Ramey.

Credit: Kip Ramey

Credit: Kip Ramey

“Instead of just relying on someone to approach me at a festival and take a painting home, I’m shipping to New York and Los Angeles and Texas now,” Dotson says.

Still, high-tech methods and forced social distancing, when applied to down-home, earthy creations, can seem counterintuitive, even a little cold. Folk art tends not to match the sofa. Can it pop, visually, on a computer screen and convey its visceral message?

“I don’t find it to be a drawback in any way,” says Claire Brightly Vohman, a Cumming artist who uses old vinyl record albums as her canvas. “Most people like the photo and then tell me that it looks even better in real life.”

A distinguishing feature of the art movement is tactile camaraderie, a challenging endeavor in a digital marketplace.

“Folk art is a family, and every piece is a love story,” Regan says. “A big part of the folk art experience is storytelling, is actually getting to know the artist personally. These are all very complicated but very genuine people, and a big part of the festivals is socializing and interacting with them.”

An air of snootiness may prevail at wine-and-cheese gallery openings, but unpretentious folk artists like to bond with their admirers, sometimes over Mason jar libations. It’s a scene, in other words.

“That’s why it’s called folk art instead of fine art,” says “Uncle Lee” Laney, another Clayton creative who describes himself and his work as an “angry cartoonist practicing rustic surrealism.”

“Hey, I like fine art, too, but most of us have only a smidgen of training, if that,” he says. “We learn by doing.”

The definition of folk art is trickier than some of the broad brushstrokes and playful subject matter might suggest.

“It’s hotly contested among people who practice it and among the scholars who study it,” says Margaret Allen, author of “When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South.” “’Folk art’ originally referred to traditional techniques passed down from one generation to the next or learned through an apprenticeship. Academics talk about ‘vernacular art,’ but I usually prefer the term ‘self-taught’ artist, though some think that is misleading because we’re all influenced by pop culture and other factors.”

She sighs, as if tired of parsing the differences.

Before the pandemic, Claire Brightly Vohman of Cumming sold her paintings on vinyl records at consignment shops. Now they’re available on the Viral Art Facebook page.
Courtesy of Claire Brightly Vohman

Credit: Claire Brightly Vohman

Credit: Claire Brightly Vohman

“The word ‘outsider’ offends a lot of people, so now most people just use the word ‘folk art’ as general shorthand for all of it,” Allen says. “Whatever you want to call it, people have strong reactions to it. You either love it or you hate it.”

Thanks to recent online marketing efforts, Southern folk art may have gone increasingly global, expanding the reach of historically marginalized groups such as women, African-Americans and other backwoods savants who lacked the resources and time for art school but felt driven to create anyway.

“A lot of folk art gives needed voice to the African-American experience,” Regan says.

Artist Tex S. Crawford of Commerce, who creates “outer space petrographic work” and says “everything that comes out of me is on loan from the universe,” credits the Facebook Viral Art page for helping him navigate the pandemic.

“To be creative means to adjust and adapt every single day,” he says. “(Viral Art) has taught me not to lose hope despite the uncertainties because it’s brought me a steady stream of sales and four new patrons. But, better than that, two of those patrons have become darn good friends. Paying the bills is good, but friendship is both transformational and priceless. Just because we’re online doesn’t mean we’ve lost our connectivity.”


Viral Art.

Folk Aid.

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