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Folk art: Everything you need to know about this traditional art form

What is folk art, why is it popular and how can we incorporate it into our homes? All these questions and more are explained in this blog post.
What is folk art, why is it popular and how can we incorporate it into our homes? All these questions and more are explained in this blog post.

You may have heard of the term folk art. Yet, few are fully aware of the vast body of artwork it refers to. Art is a visual representation of identity for many individuals. Folk art is no different. Many cultures turn to craft to communicate and preserve their story. In the past, when levels of illiteracy were high, this was the only way to document significant life events. The origins of folk art are linked to ancient cultures, and works that fall into this genre are typically made using paper, cloth, metal, or wood among other materials. It is rich in symbolism and steeped in grassroots ideals. And, unlike most art created today, folk art searches for a simple, unpretentious storytelling manner. After all, the premise of this genre has always been: art made in rural areas by common people.

A brief history of folk art

Folk art as a term is very new. It was created in the 19th century to refer to European peasant art which romanticised the simple life of country folk. In post-Industrial Revolution times, folk art provided relief from the hard, urban surroundings cropping up across the United Kingdom and beyond. The appreciation of this art form was fuelled further by the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris. At this time, the term folk art only referred to art created by rural dwellers in Western societies. The ancient treasures left behind by major civilisations were deemed to be far too superior to warrant such a meagre title. However, if we look at this genre from a wider perspective it is clear that folk art dates back to the beginning of time. But, let’s start with something closer to the present day to inspire you.

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Japanese illustration art

All cultures have their version of folk art and Japan is no exception. Ukiyo-e is a style of woodblock art that became popular throughout the 17th century until the 18th century. Its distinctive appearance won it a worldwide appeal and it became a visual reference for the Impressionists and many French artists. This is thanks to its asymmetrical style, use of flat block colours and the elimination of complex structure and form.

Artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige were trailblazers of this style. His illustration style influences many contemporary artists, including Tropia Art. The depiction of everyday life is seen in his paintings such as Suido Bridge and Surugadai. This painting, in particular, depicts a family festival called Children’s Day. On this day, paper carp fish called Koinobori are hung outside houses to try and convert children into determined and spirited individuals, just like the carp.

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Book and music covers inspired by folk art

Folk art illustration has been a big part of our leisure time too. Pick up a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales, and you will likely find an ornately illustrated cover that mirrors the decorative elements seen in folk art. In Russia, Ivan Bilibin’s folk art illustrations decorate the pages of Alexander Afanasyev’s legendary fairy tales. Flora and fauna, mythical creatures and scenes of everyday life are all hallmarks of his work and the genre as a whole. These illustrations transport the reader into enchanted worlds full of allure and magic.

Singers like Florence and the Machine also use folk art references for their album artwork. Her album Lungs shows a luscious green backdrop with Florence in the centre, dressed in a long-sleeve Grecian-style dress. It is clear at first glance that the artistic direction for this photo was heavily inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite folk art-inspired painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

Symbols in art: Norwegian folk art

Symbols are all around us whether you choose to acknowledge them or not. This is especially true when it comes to folk art. Yet symbols don’t just provide visual pleasure but they strategically communicate a message, promote good energy, warn and protect. Nothing is left to chance when creating a work of folk art. For example, in Norwegian folk art, a few key sacred symbols include a sun for good fortune, zig-zags or locks for protection and Goddesses for protection.

Mexican folk art symbols

Mexican folk art features many natural symbols, most notably birds. The Mayans believed birds to be sacred beings since they could live both on the ground and in the sky, thus connecting the mortal world with the spirit world. Jaguars and serpents were also common in more recent forms of Mexican folk art since they were the two animals present in the garden of Eden. 

Amate is a Mexican paper made from the pulp of fig and mulberry trees and is used to this day in Mexico for the creation of folk art. On its rich and textured surface artisans from the state of Guerrero paint brightly coloured scenes of everyday life, full of cultural symbolism and charm.

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Folk art and Tropia Art prints

Jil-Laura draws upon the magical realism of folk art for her limited edition Tropia Art prints. Everything from the papyrus printed paper inspired by ancient Egyptian artworks to symbols associated with witchcraft and the occult forms a link with folk art. Yet Jil-Laura doesn’t limit her fascination with the genre to one style alone. Influences from Native American art, Mayan and Aztec artefacts and the Japanese use of the pointillism illustration technique all melt together to bring her utopian wonderland to life.

Adding folk art prints to your home

Folk art is an eclectic taste, but its representations of daily life and treasured rituals make it an ideal art form for the home. Themes such as the lunar cycle, the harvest and milestone events such as weddings make it suitable for practically any corner of the home. However, an ideal setting would be to place it where the family gathers, such as in the kitchen or the living room. These traditional meeting spots echo the messages transmitted in the works of art and amplify the sense of unity that the artist tries to portray with their work. 

Entrance ways are another space where folk art would triumph, thanks to its storytelling element. It would be a creative ice-breaker when guests come to visit. Children will also love the mystical and fantastical side of folk art so bring their bedrooms to life with depictions of the famous fairytales. Since this art form dates back to the dawn of time, there are endless possibilities for decorating your home with it.

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