How Edgar Tolson Made It: Oral Sources and Folk Art's Success

By Ardery, Julia S. | The Oral History Review, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

How Edgar Tolson Made It: Oral Sources and Folk Art's Success


Ardery, Julia S., The Oral History Review


The 1970s produced arguably the most variegated art scene in U.S. history, a decade in which fields of lightning rods shared the spotlight with pubic hair, when conceptualist masterpieces managed never to exist and site sculptors moved the Earth. Among the many artistic subfields that emerged during the 1970s was "twentieth century folk and outsider art," a rubric that has come to include pieces as diverse as face jugs, bubble gum sculptures, backyard temples, canes, plaster skulls, and paintings on shirt cardboard.(1) Such objects, long ignored or maligned as the preoccupations of hinterland eccentrics, were exhibited with increasing frequency through the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, have been enshrined by the mightiest art institutions in the U.S.: Sotheby's auction house (which since 1990 has devoted a portion of its January sale to twentieth century folk and outsider art) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which in 1992 purchased two drawings by self-taught artist Bill Traylor of Montgomery).

Richard Candida Smith has argued that the spirit and possibility of aesthetic pluralism are wholly in keeping with oral history in the arts, which "from its early days in the 1940s, has been concerned with expanding the definition of what is significant."(2) Thus it should not be surprising that during the pluralist 1970s oral historians would have participated in turning the public's gaze upon such formerly ignoble objects as walking sticks and muffler men. Yet oral history, and casual recorded conversations too, have played peculiarly elevating and animating roles in the ascendancy of twentieth century folk art, roles that exceed mere art historical chronicling.

This article, focusing on the career of one acclaimed contemporary folk artist, Kentucky woodcarver Edgar Tolson, considers how recorded interviews enlarged the conception of art to include his whittled animals, dolls, and Bible scenes. By stimulating public interest in folk artists like Tolson and calling attention to complexities that underlie the charming things that he and others made, oral sources have documented and simultaneously cultivated a field of folk art appreciation. Oral sources have not merely recorded folk art's fortunes but have significantly shaped them as well. This article looks at why interviews of all kinds are particularly well suited to establishing folk art's legitimacy and, further, how a kind of amateur ethnography involving tape recorded question and answer sessions became part of twentieth-century folk art collecting.

It will also be shown that oral history undertaken with a range of informants can unveil the mysterious process of artistic legitimation, a process guided by social interaction and structural force, dependent upon a confluence of balmy economic conditions, state patronage, and educational reinforcement. By such means, oral history "can inject history back into an artist's career and, more importantly, inject the career back into a broader understanding of history."(3)

Through the case of Edgar Tolson, this study will advocate a more longitudinal approach to oral history, one that may reveal how artist-identities are formed in response to public recognition, sales, and the interview situation itself. Finally, this article calls attention to a prevalent distortion in oral interviews that concern art and artists, a problem future oral historians are challenged to resolve.

How Folk Art Reputations Are Made

To understand twentieth century folk art's popularity and legitimation as an artistic field, I chose to study the career of Edgar Tolson, a Campton, Kentucky, artist who both made and was made by this larger cultural phenomenon. How had it happened that objects he gave away in 1965 by the truckload, twenty-five years later were acquired by major U.S. art museums and sold for thousands of dollars apiece from the public auction block? With his life story at the core, I conducted some sixty oral histories, ring by concentric ring; of his family members, Wolfe County dignitaries, local and distant admirers, art dealers, critics, collectors and museum curators whose activities in sum brought Tolson renown. …

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