Credit the Pacific Northwest Music Scene inspiring the name of Washington State University’s new exhibit, Indie Folk: New Art and Sounds of the Pacific Northwest.
“When I discovered the Northwest was a hub for indie folk, which is a genre that hybridizes traditional acoustic folk with contemporary instrumentation, I came up with a title for the show,” says Melissa Feldman , the East Coast-based freelance art curator who developed indie folk.
The music may have inspired the title, but it was the Pacific Northwest art scene that caught her eye several years ago when she was living in Seattle.
“I noticed there was a lot of involvement with handcrafting and artisanal methods in the Pacific Northwest, as opposed to hands-off concept work, and a preference for the crude graphic directness that you could describe as ‘folk,'” says Feldman, who worked with Portland-based Adams and Ollman Gallery in 2020 to stage indie folk online before approaching WSU with the show.
Folk – as in folk music, folklore, folk hero – informally refers to people. It also involves a group of popular traditions. It might make people art one of the easiest categories of artistic creation to understand because it is people.
Although an individual’s experiences with folk art may differ due to culture and history, there are commonalities in form. Folk art exemplifies ingenuity, such as scrap metal sculptures made from old farm tools. It is often personal, narrative, and sometimes functional, like the heritage quilt that conveys both the history and legacy of its creator and users. And folk art is graphic rather than scripted, emphasizing authenticity rather than artifice; it may be created by someone who does not know or care about structured techniques, and who may or may not call themselves an artist.
As democratic like the sound of folk art, however, the term is also problematic, says Ryan Hardesty, executive director of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU. “Historically, it’s been used as a catch-all term for really—unfortunately—any artist considered outside of the mainstream art historical canon.”
Similar labels like “outsider art” or “low art” used in academic or institutional settings have historically separated artists – and therefore the art they produce – based on education, gender and ethnicity. .
indie folk and exhibits like this can help bridge those disparities.
“I think what’s exciting today and in the world we live in now is to see an effort to reclaim the term ‘folk’, to work on dissolving some of those boundaries, giving greater value to broader forms of human artistry and ingenuity.” says Hardesty, who has worked with Feldman since 2021 to bring indie folk at WSU.
Neither Hardesty nor Feldman would call the exhibit participants folk artists in the traditional sense, and few, if any, call themselves that.
“Rather the point [of Indie Folk] is really to reflect on the sensibilities, chosen aesthetics and influences of a select group of contemporary Northwest artists,” says Hardesty.
“None of the artists in the exhibit are interested in replicating early American wooden toys or a classic quilt pattern,” Feldman says.
Although the artists of indie folk may not call themselves “folk artists,” they refer to folk traditions in a variety of ways, Feldman says, including “aesthetics, formal and material inventiveness, connection to the past, closeness with human experience and ordinary life.
Aesthetically, Andrea Joyce Heimer’s painting “The Big Sky Rodeo Finals That Summer Were Marked By A Flash Lightning Storm, A Horse Fight, And My First Handjob In A Haystack” illustrates a complex outdoor event that is both straight and airy so viewers “read” the action almost like a graphic novel.
Vince Skelly’s carved wood benches and sculptures are a hybrid of two ways of working, with surfaces and shapes that are both rustic and highly refined. His sculptures also bridge the past, reminiscent of ancient monoliths, as well as modern art inspired by these historic pieces.
Denzil Hurley also enters two worlds, says Feldman, who describes Hurley’s multimedia pieces like “Glyph Frame #6” as sophisticated and remotely modern, with its monochromatic coloring and minimalist composition. Yet Hurley also uses handmade objects in his work, and on closer inspection you can see his scribbles and brushstrokes, which are more tied to folk traditions.
“The reason he loved the language of art is that it is more open and allows for more ambiguity than the language of words,” Feldman says of the late Barbados-born, Yale-educated artist. , died in 2021.
A lot of indie folk artists incorporate common materials in unusual ways, especially DE May, but also Marita Dingus, whose work symbolizes the overcoming of historical oppression.
“Discarded materials represent how people of African descent were used during the institution of slavery and colonialism, then discarded, but found ways to reorient themselves and thrive in a hostile world,” writes Dingus, in his artist statement.
Visually, Dingus’ work appears fragile or fragmented, but conceptually it is nuanced and cohesive, reminding viewers that the materials of contemporary folk art may be common, but the thought process is not.
Sky Hopinka’s video, “Jáaji Approx.”, diverts attention from the inventive use of materials in contemporary folk art to thematic commonalities.
Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and descendant of the Pechanga Band of the Luiseño people, juxtaposes a range of rural and urban landscapes with vocal recordings of his father over a 10-year period. Superimposed on the imagery are transcriptions of the elder Hopinka’s words in one of three languages: English using the disorienting but familiar phonetic alphabet; English using the Roman alphabet (conventional); and Hoak, the traditional language of the Ho-Chunk people.
On some level, Hopinka’s work reflects similar themes across indie folk: family, community, oral and documentary traditions, rural belonging, cultural traditions. On another level, it signals the continual evolution of the contemporary folk genre.
indie folk is not a full stop; it’s more of an exploration of the concept of folk, says Feldman, whose lifelong interest in art and curation has been fueled by travel and innate curiosity.
“I think my familiarity with the art scenes of the different places I’ve lived – including London, Glasgow, [Washington] DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York, where I come from and return to regularly, gave me a basis for comparison and made me aware of the difference,” says Feldman. indie folk I’m trying to understand where this trend is coming from to give some historical context to this.”
Interest in contemporary folk isn’t limited to the Northwest, she says.
Indeed, the American Folk Art Museum in New York is celebrating its 60th anniversary with four different folk art exhibits that will tour the country through 2024. And when indie folk completes its Pullman run in May, it will then travel to the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon, and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington.
“I’m not the only curator these days examining non-urban, non-traditional, non-academic sources and histories that affect artistic creation today,” Feldman says. “I think there’s a lot of interest in that.” ♦
Indie Folk: New Art and Songs from the Pacific Northwest through May 21 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU, 1535 NE Wilson Road in Pullman. The show is free and open Tuesday to Friday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit museum.wsu.edu or call 509-335-1910.