Here in Austin, we think locally. You can sip on a cappuccino, browse boutiques, dine on first rate BBQ, and catch a show of a homegrown musician— all on Willie Nelson Blvd. We love our city and all the wonderfully weird, creative dreamers in it. Our intimate connection to all things local bonds us together. This environment is where folk art flourishes. Folk art is a piece of decorative or functional art created by a self-taught or outsider artist–anyone outside the established art scene. Folk artists rely on a collection of easily interpreted motifs, symbols, designs, and patterns, forming a language readable by those with a commonly held heritage. By no means self-taught, many well-trained contemporary artists work within the boundaries of this tradition. Adopting a standardized visual vocabulary, artists such as Kathryn Polk, Deborah Mersky, and Annalise Gratovich weave complex narratives, capturing the very essence of cultural identity.
“Many artists draw from their memories and that’s what I’m doing with some hyperbole.” Kathryn Polk’s lithographs over hours of interpretation. The precisely rendered narratives are a homogeny of four generations of women in her family: her mother, her sister and herself, her daughter, and her granddaughter. Her mother’s mentorship was important to her and a strong female voice is evident throughout the narratives in her artwork. Polk grew up with traditional values in the south; she and her sister received toy ironing boards and kitchen sets while her brothers received erector sets and doctor’s kits. Particularly relevant to Baby Boomers, the images have slight sardonic undertones; “at a quick glance it appears humorous but if you look closer you begin to see things as they really were,” explains Polk.
Every motif in Polk’s work has strong symbolic meaning. In Lesson Learned and This I Know the young girl wears a pink dress, identical to the Simplicity pattern Polk’s mother sewed time and time again. Articles of domestic chores are scattered throughout. A firefighter, her father is present in a number of her pieces as a flame emitting from the hearts of the female figures. The overarching theme can be read from the cactus paddles perched on the young girl’s head. “As the cactus wren builds her nest she mentors me. My art is about a woman’s innate tenacity to adapt to any environment.” Native to the American southwest, the cactus wren is curious, mischievous, and is known for forming life-long bonds. The female cactus wren builds safe, impenetrable nests deep within the prickly spines of cacti. The cactus paddles in Polk’s prints are suggestive of this type of secure setting and the bonds between the women in her family, unbreakable bonds that will continue for generations.
“I breathe in my surroundings near the Pedernales River, where a whiff of wilderness still exists,” says artist Deborah Mersky. Raised in Austin, Mersky sought refuge exploring brushy deer paths as a child, collecting bits of nature, and developing a rich assemblage of imagery. Now a country dweller, she documents her rugged sanctuary with a unique style of relief printing. Mersky forms a block out of clay; before the block is fully dry, she carves her design. The materials are inexpensive and create a nice surface for hand printing. She prints in black ink and then applies layers of gouache, brightly hued to mimic the Texas hill country. Merksy’s images are snap shots of Central Texas; she captures the flora and fauna of our world.
In her new series of woodcuts The Villagers, Carrying Things from Home, Annalise Gratovich dives into her Ukrainian and Eastern European heritage. Gratovich culls mythology and folklore and examines regional textiles and folk arts like matyryoshka dolls–Russian nesting dolls– for inspiration. Whereas Polk’s work is female centric, Gratovich’s is androgynous. Viewers project themselves onto the gures–women refer to the gures as “she” and men as “he” in an attempt to identify with them. When humans see personi cations in art we immediately try to form connections. As highly social creatures, it is in our nature.
Each print in the suite of eight will illustrate an archetype of village life– The Gambler, The Mariner, and The Hunter are finished; work will soon begin on a builder, a minister, and a mother crone figure; the series will likely conclude with a fool. The collection is about identity, memory, and the burden of accountability. The villagers suggest that our actions shape who we are-either good or bad. Eastern European heritage is not required in order to relate to Gratovich’s work; the humble gures, burdened by the wares of their respective trades speak to everyone’s ancestry.
One could argue that the medium of printmaking is a somewhat poetic way to generate this type of imagery. Printmaking was invaluable to the spread of knowledge and ideas in early modern Europe. Prints telling European stories and demonstrating European style traveled across the Atlantic to the Americas where they were culturally assimilated. Today, American culture is expansive with hundreds of tributaries; the prints of Polk, Mersky, and Gratovich capture snippets of our diverse society just as folk art of the 18th and 19th centuries captured the spirit of a young culture.