Girard’s Folk Art Labyrinth

While in Santa Fe, New Mexico last spring I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of International Folk Art, originally opened in 1953. My main reason for visiting was to see the wing that houses Alexander Girard and his wife Susan’s sprawling folk art collection. The exhibit was designed by Girard himself, from the layout of the extensive window box displays, down to the angle of a doll’s chair in each diarama.

Alexander and his wife began collecting folk art (particularly Mexican folk art) starting in the 1930’s. Many tourists have done the same, but Alexander and Susan Girard “recognized the aesthetic value of this art immediately”. The Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art is made up of over one hundred thousand objects drawn from over one hundred countries. When you step into the Girard wing of the museum, it’s absolutely overwhelming. Brightly colored and immensely dense, the exhibit weaves a maze around dozens of intricately arranged dioramas. Textiles hang from the rafters and religious statues loom from above cases.

It’s an absolute sensory overload—a haven of miniatures for an emphemra packrat like me. I peered into shadow boxes until my neck hurt.

The definition of the term “folk art” remains vexing even to scholars in the field. As I walked through the labyrinth of beautifully crafted scultpures and textiles, I tried to make sense of where the line between art and kitsch is drawn. There are two schools of thought: one where a sense of community (i.e. made from indigenous cultures) holds sway and the other in which individual creativity is heavily emphasized. In contrast to fine art, folk art is purely decorative rather than utilitarian. The interesting thing to me about folk art is that it seems to come from an uncorrupted urge (or call) to be creative, whether it’s manifested in clay, fiber, wood, or tin cans. I imagine most the artisans in the exhibit never went to school for art, and that is what makes their creative expressions so pure and true …and also what is so fascinating about it.

Originally published at on June 1, 2015.

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