American Folk Art: Celebrating the Creativity and Craftsmanship of Everyday Artisans 

American Folk Art: Rare and Important Johannes Spitler, Shenandoah Co, Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Paint-Decorated Yellow Pine Blanket Chest. Rare and Important Johannes Spitler, Shenandoah Co, Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Paint-Decorated Yellow Pine Blanket Chest. Sold for $77,675 USD via Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates (Nov 2021).

The vast American folk art tradition offers authentic, innovative, and captivating creations whose reach spans generations and modes of creative expression. From self-taught artists to delightful wood carvings and intricate quilting and textile makers, American folk art encapsulates the spirit of a nation and the legacies handed down across its history. 

Everyday Artistry

American folk art is remarkably varied, an element that makes the field all the more captivating because these forms and techniques are often informed by regional traditions and materials. Despite this diversity, American folk art does share some core characteristics: 


American folk art typically incorporates materials that can be wrought by hand. Elaborate cedar or maple carvings, for example, or ceramic vessels underscore the trend in the field to focus on media that allow the expertise of the maker’s hand to shine. The same could be said of embroidered quilts, hooked rugs, or woven baskets that involve artfully woven materials or metalwork creations like weathervanes or other fixtures that showcase manual talents. 

Natural Materials

Many examples of American folk art also rely upon organic media. Beyond wood and clay, some folk artists rely on natural dyes for their wool or thread. Others incorporate found objects from nature, such as corn husks or dried gourds, to further this natural element. 

Adherence to Traditions

These techniques and materials that comprise many examples of American folk art also often honor vast histories of making. Traditional modes and motifs are handed down between families and makers, thereby aligning new works within their creative genealogies. 

Folk Traditions and Regional Variations

In addition to these long shared histories with their regional makers, American folk artists have developed a fan following among collectors who appreciate these facets and recognize the historic significance of these generational artistic conversations. Some of the most celebrated of the American folk artists include: 

Shaker Furniture: Simplicity and Functionality

When the Shaker community first formed in England in the late 18th century, they united around several core ideals that included an emphasis on living a humble, simple life. This streamlined practicality came with the Shakers when they arrived in America in 1774 and proved influential to their furnishings that espoused uncomplicated lines and functional profiles often wrought in refined cherry or maple wood. Shaker furniture, from tables and benches to cabinets, attracted fans quickly and eventually proved foundational for the similarly clean lines of modernist design in the 20th century. One of their more iconic forms was the ladder back chair, so named for its elevated back that featured rung-like cross bars.

Amish Quilts: Tradition and Craftsmanship

Similar to the Shakers in their pursuit of a quiet existence, the American Amish community blossomed along the East Coast by 1750. It was around that same time that Amish women began quilting to provide their families a means of warmth in the winter. What began as a practicality, however, also laid the groundwork for a quilting tradition that would gain worldwide acclaim. Handmade Amish quilts incorporate techniques shared across generations of makers and can be recognized for their precise geometric motifs and repetitive patterns that often enliven these textile creations. Some of the best known are the Diamond in the Square and the Sunshine and Shadow patterns as these showcase the incredible amount of craftsmanship – including precise assembly and careful color matching of textiles – that each Amish quilt demands. 

Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs: Folklore and Superstition

Taking their name from the thriving Dutch community of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs referred to painted motifs enclosed in circles that began to appear on many barns in the second half of the 19th century. Echoing the clean geometry of Amish quilts and the detailed ornamentation of the Pennsylvania Dutch artistic tradition of fraktur, these hex signs took several iconic forms. The barn star was perhaps one of the most traditional, but motifs of the compass rose as well as tulips and hearts also became frequent as barns could be adorned with multiple such signs.

More unique was the Distelfink, which comprised a stylized rendering of a goldfinch. These finches, along with these other symbolic additions could be read as signs of friendship, happiness and harmony to broadcast good luck and well-wishes to all passersby.  

Southern Folk Pottery: Heritage and Identity

Southern folk pottery emerged from a Southern melting point of ceramic production that included traditions from Europe, Africa, and indigenous America. The result was a dynamic new field of pottery that melded utilitarian forms with experimental color and glaze combinations. For example, the potters of North Carolina’s Catawba Valley perfected stoneware ceramics accented with alkaline glazes that gave each piece an earthy feel. Many of these creations focused on the functional, however, some ventured into the playful realm, like the maker of this late 19th-century whiskey jug emblazoned with a stylized figure or makers from the mid-20th century who conjured face jugs. Families of makers also produced playful works, such as the face vessels createby the Hewell family of Alabama or the animal forms seen in the wares of the Meaders family of Georgia.

Appalachian Basketry: Utility and Artistry

Building upon the basketmaking traditions first established by the indigenous American cultures of the Shawnee and Cherokee that were later infused with styles and techniques exported from Europe, artists in the Appalachian region conjured their own weaving tradition that paired functional utility with communal significance. In addition to using a wealth of materials like white oak inherent to their region, weavers of Appalachian baskets created several quintessential forms in varying sizes that are synonymous with the region. For instance, iconic to the Appalachian basket tradition is the egg basket, which features a curved profile and rounded corners to safeguard its gentle cargo. The melon basket is another marvel, its name granted thanks to its ribbed exterior that recalls the speckled skin of a honeydew. These carefully articulated forms were at times enhanced with painted additions to draw attention to their precise weaving.

Gee’s Bend Quilts: Community and Collaboration

One of the oldest African-American quilting traditions in America, the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend have created such a striking repertoire of quilts that they have been featured in a Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition. The brilliance of these quilts, which emerged from this close-knit African American community outside of Selma, is in their precise patterns and rich colors. Each quilt constructed from scraps of clothing offers a kaleidoscope of hues that transforms traditional methods into a statement of contemporary expression. Enthusiasts for Gee’s Bend quilts will often seek the “Housetop” design pioneered by quiltmaker Annie Mae Young in the mid-20th century and emulated by later makers like Bettie B. Seltzer featured a series of nested squares constructed by strips of colorful fabric. Equally compelling was the “Pine Burr” pattern that relied upon multicolored concentric circles that radiate uniformly across the quilt. Borne out of practicality and the resilience of the community, Gee’s Bend quilts continue today to serve as examples of quintessential quilting mastery. 

Outsider Art: Outsider Perspectives and Expressions

Just as many of these makers learned their techniques from their forebears, so too did painters and sculptors. This type of training, however, outside of the dominant halls of one of the leading artistic academies, meant that these artists were often relegated to the realm of folk or outsider art. These makers, who typically eschewed more traditional methods and materials, imbued their work with an uncanny sense of innovation and ingenuity. Henry Darger was a leader in the American Outsider art movement. Born and raised in Chicago, Darger worked as a custodian and committed to painting with watercolors in his free time. These paintings, obscured during his lifetime, rose to prominence after his death as they were recognized for their remarkable range and dreamy, otherworldly characters and settings.

A similar story accompanies William Edmonson, a custodian from Tennessee who was called into sculpting works from fragmentary pieces of reclaimed stone in 1934 as a sexagenarian. These sculptures, which he called tombstones, featured varied figures from preachers to lions (better image here) and echoed the modernist minimalism that was beginning to grow in popularity across the art world. At the same time, though, his sculptures took on an almost historicizing totemic quality, a combination of past and present that perhaps contributed to Edmonson’s solo showcase in 1937 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the first retrospective held at the lauded museum to honor an African-American artist. 

Collecting American Folk Art

These various facets of American folk art showcase some of the impressive variety the field offers collectors and enthusiasts. Just as with any other collecting category, discerning what pieces are the best to collect and how to ensure the longevity of folk art can be challenging. To conclude, we wanted to offer a few tips for seeking out American folk art as well as some inspiration as to how to meld it seamlessly with your current decor. To that end, those in pursuit of an American folk art acquisition should consider: 

Artistic Legacy

As we’ve demonstrated, many of these fields of American folk art come with named artists and signed works, but others are linked by material and technique alone. Given this, ensure as you peruse American folk art offerings that you are embarking into a field where heritage and tradition can often outweigh the name of a singular maker. 


Those searching for a unique art object might also need temper expectations depending on the type of American folk art they hope to acquire. For example, while myriad Appalachian egg baskets conform to similar shapes and dimensions (as a testament to the precision of their creation even across a pool of makers), Outsider artists or Gee’s Bend quilters might saturate their work with a greater sense of individual expression. This can impact price point, but it can also influence how and where you might showcase your American folk art acquisition. 


Different examples of American folk art can stand the test of time with varying longevity. The emphasis on organic materials from wood to wool combined with the age of some American folk art available on today’s auction market means that collectors need to carefully inspect the condition of works they are considering for purchase. At the same time, these collectors also need to see themselves as stewards of history, meaning that the addition of American folk art to their collection means taking steps to safeguard that object for future generations regardless of media. A consultation with a conservator, particularly for textile and woven works, can never hurt. 

At the end of the day, adding American folk art to your collection means infusing it with examples of enduring artistic creativity with roots tracing far back in history, so treasure this richness.