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“It is easy to form art in the mind. The hard part is realizing it in materials.”

––Henry Glassie, folklorist and ethnomusicologist

“An object is not an object; it is a witness to a relationship.”

––Cecilia Vicuña, poet and visual artist

When artists create, they enter into a relational exchange with the “stuff” of the world––stone, fibers, pigment, metal, clay––honing their skills over time. Activation of the materiality embedded in physical matter channels the power of less tangible elements, such as the play of light and color and the ethereal realms of memory and faith. Chosen materials are both patient companions and unwieldy accomplices, joining art makers through moments of painstaking work, exuberant expression, and quiet rapture. Materials support livelihoods and give form to creative process. More than inert substances or traditional tools of the trade, materials enable the expression of multifaceted identities and provide intimate resources for ritual and healing.

This exhibition, drawn from the American Folk Art Museum's expanding collection, chronicles how folk and self-taught artists across four centuries have intervened in and collaborated with the components of the material world. The wide-ranging results of these diverse practices document how artists learn through material engagement, often in ways that evade and exceed conventional frameworks for art training. Most of the creators showcased here either produced works of art and utilitarian wares for sale or spent their lives working in occupations other than art making. The materials that comprise these objects do something extraordinary: they grant permission to those that interact with them to assume the role of artist and maker. 


Brooke Wyatt, Luce Assistant Curator

Support for this exhibition is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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