The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art

The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art

The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art

The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art

Synopsis

Why, beginning in the late 1960s, did expressive objects made by poor people come to be regarded as "twentieth-century folk art", increasingly sought after by the middle class and the wealthy? Julia Ardery explores that question through the life story of Kentucky woodcarver Edgar Tolson (1904-1984) and the evolving public reception of his poplar "dolls". The Temptation presents a vivid and intriguing chronicle of folk art's ascendancy during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, enlivened by the voices and opinions of diverse participants in the folk art scene. Ardery draws on original in-depth interviews with, among others, folklorist Alan Jabbour; folk art collectors Herbert W. Hemphill Jr., Michael and Julie Hall, and Chuck and Jan Rosenak; painter Roger Brown; Nancy Druckman of Sotheby's Auction House; folk art dealers John Ollman, Carl Hammer, and Larry Hackley; and members of Tolson's family. This range of informants presents a full and profound record of the conflicts and aspirations that built the folk art field and fueled a twenty-year tug-of-war over its definition, pricing, and interpretation.

Excerpt

Tolson's carving began as child's play. Practiced fifty years in trades of carpentry and implement making, it became a skill. During the years at Holly, Tolson turned carving to more personal and expressive uses in the plank house, with its animated stone steps, and the several guardian statues made to mark his property. After the stroke in 1957, he carved as therapy, to rehabilitate his left hand and distract him from worry. "It helps me forget my sickness. Now just setting around and doing nothing, you get wore out," he said in later years. "It's pastime for me. . . . You've got something to occupy your mind." As adjustment to his disability, Tolson's refuge in carving also became a form of saving face; no longer able to earn a wage, he offered whittled gifts to his doctor, welfare caseworker, and banker. In 1967, however, his woodcarvings were enlisted in several larger cultural programs and, through these movements, reached new publics. As a consequence, Tolson's dolls evolved to absorb, bespeak, and repulse several ideologies -- of political activism, regional pride, and economic development -- that attended the nation's rediscovery of Appalachia.

Barbara Ehrenreich, to understand the social revelations of the 1960s, asked, "If the poor and the working class had to be discovered, from whose vantage point were they once hidden?" Her answer, of course, is the middle and upper classes, who, through the flush 1950s, had grown to assume post- war affluence as a general condition. While many forces converged to shake this complacency, it was the civil rights movement that most brazenly exposed injustice in America and brought impoverished people into coalition. The Montgomery bus boycott, Greensboro sits-in of 1960, Freedom Rides of the following year, Birmingham riots, and 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, not only exposed the facts of American poverty and racism, realities long familiar to many, but through an expanding mass media culture, these events broadcast the success of African Americans in building and sustaining political strength.

Whites in the movement, many of them young, college-educated leftists, had been galvanized by the civil rights cause. Tom Hayden, soon to be presi-

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