Three-Ring Circus is Over-The-Top in Farmville

Posted by: Necci – Oct 12, 2011


The term “Folk Artist” elicits specific qualifiers: untrained, poor, rural, usually Southern, often African-American. This last demographic points to the roots of the American Folk Art tradition, in which practices such as “face jugs” and quilt making were passed down to the descendants of slaves in the South. If there is an agenda to Three-Ring Circus, at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts through January 6th, it seems to be a reconsideration of what distinguishes Folk Art, as well as a validation of its unique qualities.

After entering the LCVA, located on Main Street in Farmville, one is gradually arrested by the display. The 268 works by 105 artists are but a fraction of the total collection of William and Ann Oppenheimer of Richmond, who have been collecting American folk art since the 1980s, and are founding members of the Folk Art Society of America. Within the LCVA’s three galleries, the works are divided into corresponding themes: We the People (portraits), Animal Kingdom (animals), and Tent Revival (religion). These themes are offered as dominant subjects, explored in a Folk Art collection that is arguably one of the most significant in the country and will eventually belong to the LCVA. The works, hung salon-style, rest against brightly painted and striped walls, inciting the whimsy, vitality, and humor that LCVA Director K. Johnson Bowles finds emblematic of Folk Art.

Three-Ring Circus is a reasonably comprehensive, if not ambitious, introduction to Folk Art in a decidedly rural section of Virginia. I brought two classes from Longwood University to see the exhibit on the same weekend that the Folk Art Society of America held its annual meeting in Richmond and visited the LCVA. One of my students asked, with thought and sincerity, “What makes this Folk Art?” while looking at John Robert Mason’s Untitled (Red Pine, Orange Planets). The work is marker on poster board, and inexpensive, readily available materials are overwhelmingly characteristic of Folk Art production. Mason’s image also includes text; as with many works in the exhibit, this seems to offer an explanation for the complexity of the composition, or to make meaning apparent in an emphatic need to be understood. Otherwise, Mason’s work, like many in the exhibition, echoes the distant project of expressionist color as a hallmark of Modern Art.

Here, Folk Art is not expressed alone by the crudity of the painted wood sculptures, or the naïveté of high-key color paintings. The simplicity found in the wooden squirrels, cats, pigs, and rabbits by the late Linvel and Lillian Faye Barker rival sculptors from Brancussi to Giacometti. Sabinita López Ortiz of Córdova, New Mexico sculpts in aspen and cedar wood. Her Tree of Life (2010), a small sculpture of intricate detail and complex design, is far from the crudely carved and brightly painted forms associated with Folk Art, and I would hardly describe her work as a fourth generation “santero” sculptor as “untrained.” As one of six artists in the exhibition from New Mexico, Sabinita López Ortiz supersedes the notion that Folk Artists are exclusively from the Deep South, the Carolinas, or the Appalachian Region.

Additionally, a number of the artists represented suffer from mental challenges. John Williams has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his collaged portrait of General Stonewall Jackson is a textbook exercise of two-dimensional design, yet is competently executed. Art is a means of “coping and maintaining focus” for Williams, and creates a sense of human connection difficult for him in life. Other artists who have suffered from mental challenges or traumatic events--including Inez Nathanial Walker, who served many years in prison and died in a mental institution, or Mary Proctor, who sought solace in religion after losing family members in a fire--demonstrate further need for that which is conspicuously absent from the exhibition’s textual material: the term Outsider Artist, which provides some insight into the social isolation prevalent among many of the show’s artists.

The impressive roster includes Moses “Mose T.” Tolliver and Howard Finster. One hardly needs to be versed in Folk Art to have heard of Alabaman and World War II veteran Mose Tolliver, who made cartoon-like, painted images on board after he was injured in a workplace accident in the 1960s. Tolliver made works to combat his depression and empty hours, whereas Howard Finster claimed to have been called by God to make art. From this “vision” until his death in 2001, Finster produced tens of thousands of works, gained national recognition, and even exhibited in the 1984 Venice Biennale, the most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art in the world. Finster once wanted to be a minister, which is evident in the fervent texts he wrote on works that he also dated meticulously to the hour. His obsessive creative impulse, combined with his zealous spread of biblical word, lend him status as an Outsider Artist. Though such designations may enhance an understanding of Folk Art, they may also reflect our compulsory need to categorize. Vincent van Gogh also had aspirations to be a minister, was untrained, suffered from emotional and mental problems, and experienced disastrous personal relationships. His work could even be described as crudely applied. How should we consider him after viewing Three-Ring Circus?

The work of James Harold “Red” Jennings had the most personal meaning for me. His polychrome works in wood of women wrestling with bullies, especially School Girl Sits on a Bully (1988), are a testament to Jennings’s interest in goddesses and female power. His series is an appropriate mix of the carnivalesque, yet with optimism and humor that give no indication of his dim reality. He lived off the grid in Pinnacle, NC, in a set of empty school buses, until he committed suicide in 1999. Of his experience as an artist, he stated, “Most of the folks around here, they don’t go in for art at all. They don’t believe in it. Well, I don’t believe in them either.”

Jennings’s words struck me because, as a former gallery owner in Louisville, I recall the frustrations of artists and dealers to raise the bar for contemporary art in the city. Our attempts to highlight alternative media like video, installation, and performance fell dead on visitors looking for paintings of horses, or expecting crafts and folk art. We often begrudged Kentucky’s reputation for Folk Art and its legacy in craft traditions like woodcarving, and set out to prove that there was a vibrant contemporary scene. Yet after viewing this exhibition, I wonder if these “folk” artists, with all their ingenuity and sincerity, are really any different. Their incessant need to create despite all obstacles, and the intense dedication to their own vision, are poignantly clear to anyone sympathetic to the creative impulse. Ultimately, Three-Ring Circus raises more questions than it provides answers. But that’s what any exhibition should do.


Dr. Erin C. Devine is an Asst. Professor of Art History at Longwood University.


1: Linvel Barker (1929-2004) b. Crockett, Kentucky; active Isonville, Kentucky & Lillian Faye Barker (1930-1997) b. Roscoe, Kentucky; active Isonville, Kentucky
Cow, 1990, wood

2: John Robert Mason (1900-1997) b. Dinwiddie County, Virginia; active Suffolk, Virginia
Untitled (Red pine, orange planets), 1994, marker on posterboard

3: Sabinita López Ortiz (b. 1938) born and active Córdova, New Mexico
Tree of Life, 2010, aspen and cedar wood

4: John Williams (b. 1981) born and active Winchester, Massachusetts
General Stonewall Jackson, 2010, collaged paper