This January marked a bit of a milestone for me, the end of a project that had me feeling a range of emotions, from excited to downright fed up with a big curve in the whole process during which I thought that I may have just struck on a PhD research idea. I won’t keep you guessing – term 4 on the MA Illustration is the collaborative unit and I have just (a week ago today) handed in my work for assessment. The term was hard, starting with finding an idea for the collaboration and establishing connections, to understanding what each party was required to do, adjusting to potentially working with others to then to the disappointment of working from an archive with no direct collaborator feedback for just over 2 months. Those were the months when I was grateful for course tutorials, especially the ones where I was allowed to just talk about what was going through my head, the problems I’d encountered, the ideas I was trying to sort through and make sense of visually. They were also the months in which I took on two commission challenges and was grateful that mother nature made me an organisation freak or else one of the balls I was juggling may well have hit the ground with a smash.
This brings me to the scope of my research which started by looking at artefacts from the Peasant Art Collection displayed at the Haslemere Museum. If you are not familiar with this museum, think along the lines of British Museum crossed with Natural History Museum in a condensed but just as exciting form. The ethnography display was small but all it took to trigger my interest. Thankfully, the book of research essays about it, The Lost Arts of Europe, was the catalyst for further research and idea development. An idea formed, after I read further information on a Romanian website that folk symbolism is of archaic origin and that it changed and was subverted through the ages. I started to think about where and how it may appear and while I observed a lot of artistic similarities in folk decoration and symbols around Europe I chose to look deeper in the folk arts of Romania so that I could understand the context in which folk art was most prevalent, how it was passed through generations and what the folk artists actually sought to say through the symbols they chose to use.
I won’t bore you with the bibliography too much, although I am attaching it at the end of this article for anyone interested to check the resources. What I want to show you is the journey I went on while undertaking this research and trying to understand where and how everything fitted. I learn though drawing and making as shown below with captions containing nuggets of information about it all.
In the end, I came up with a surprising conclusion. While you may think of folk art as everything with a folky aesthetic that comes out at different points in history – that naïve, slightly awkward and unrefined line with a 2D aesthetic and lots of floral and geometric decoration, I ended up thinking of folk art as an ancient manifestation of our cultural identity that can only ever be found in a specific type of cultural setting. Folk art exists in relation to handmade objects of everyday use around the home (this is where the fascination of the Arts and Crafts Movement with the idea of it being made ‘for love not money’ came from) which are decorated with geometric and natural motifs by people who have undergone a process of initiation into the craft and artistry of making and decorating and who in taking on the role of makers also become keepers of ancient rites and traditions which need to be followed and passed on exactly. So that my conclusion doesn’t leave you confused, let me break it all down for you:
It stands to reason that when the industrial revolution came (at different times in different parts of Europe) all those societies changed. People realised that they no longer had to whittle the wood or wash and beat the reeds or generally work quite so hard on every aspect of their material life freeing up time for other pursuits. The arduous processes they had kept going for generations became obsolete and so they learnt to take shortcuts and became more inventive themselves with the motifs and symbols they employed, wanting to leave a mark on the aesthetic of the objects they used. The whole ancient rhythm of society became disrupted and so folk arts were no longer part of a modus vivendi (they didn’t have to represent aesthetically the cultural values of a particular group of people anymore) but just an aesthetic form of expression that could be changed and modified. Generations on, people still use the naïve aesthetic of folk art but they lost the meaning that was attached to it and the customs and rituals that went along with it.
It is interesting, given the conclusion, that my final piece is a collection of artefacts of varying degrees of ‘handmade’. My imagined archetypal landscape is etched on a piece of paper hand made using sun flower stalks from my garden (but the frame I presented it in is a cheap purchase made online). The table cloth and napkins I lino-printed by hand with my own design based on old motifs are made of cheap polyester, the handmade paper dictionary I made (from willow from my garden) to explain the symbols is bound in mass produced paper (which I hand wove) and the box I decorated and placed everything in is also made in cheap wood. I cannot vouch that there was no wastage in the making of those objects, I can only speak of the pleasure I derived from making and decorating by hand and the opportunity I had in the process to compare the new with the old and draw my own conclusions about the pros and cons of either. The saving grace for the project is that my research focused particularly on the symbolism contained in folk art and the idea behind my collection was to re-create the encoded narrative found on folk objects and then give people the chance to re-learn the meaning of it by using the dictionary I made to decode the narrative on my objects.
Once the assessment process is over I want to varnish my box and then take it along to the Haslemere Museum where my ideas started to germinate and show it to the collections manager. I want to think that a conversation can take place about the value of those old symbols which most of us are letting slip into oblivion and that something can be made to bring them back into people’s awareness.
3.1.1. Pomul vieţii din neolitic până în prezent - Seimeni - de la piatra şlefuită la fier (s.d.) At: https://sites.google.com/site/seimenisatdinneolitic/3-1-1-pomul-vietii-din-neolitic-pana-in-prezent (Accessed on 6 October 2018)
Andrei, V. (s.d.) Dictionar de simboluri si Credinte traditionale Romanesti, Romulus Antonescu. At: http://cimec.ro/Etnografie/Antonescu-dictionar/Dictionar-de-Simboluri-Credinte-Traditionale-Romanesti.html (Accessed on 10 December 2018)
Badiu, M. (s.d.) Inspirational: motive si cusaturi traditionale romanesti. At: https://circulmagic.blogspot.com/2013/03/inspirational-motive-si-cusaturi.html (Accessed on 14 October 2018)
Buchczyk, M. (2014) 'To Weave Or Not To Weave: Vernacular Textiles and Historical Change in Romania' In: TEXTILE 12 (3) pp.328–345.
Corduneanu, I. (s.d.) Semne Cusute. At: http://semne-cusute.blogspot.com/search/label/motive (Accessed on 25 October 2018)
Klanten, R. and Hellige, H. (2009) Naïve: Modernism and Folklore in Contemporary Graphic Design. (s.l.): Prestel Pub.
Lehner, E. and Lehner, J. (2012) Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees [Illustrated Edition]. (s.l.): Martino Fine Books.
McCannon, D. (2014) 'Editorial' In: Journal of Illustration 1 (2) pp.173–175.
McCannon, D. (2016) 'The jobbing artist as ethnographer: Documenting ‘lore’' In: Journal of Illustration 3 (1) pp.107–128.
Mirtalipova, D. (2017) Imagine a Forest: Designs and Inspirations for Enchanting Folk Art. (s.l.): Rock Point.
mpop_imaginarul_arhetipal_2016.pdf (s.d.) At: http://aaicrea.ro/aaicrea/expert/mpop_imaginarul_arhetipal_2016.pdf
MWM Graphics | Matt W. Moore (s.d.) At: http://mwmgraphics.com/exhibitions_UTAH.html (Accessed on 2 January 2019)
Noble, M. (2004) European Folk Art Designs. (s.l.): Courier Corporation.
[No title] (s.d.) At: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nicolae_Sorin_Dragan/publication/312894056_Semiotics_of_White_Spaces_on_the_Romanian_Traditional_Blouse_the_IA/links/5888ee87aca272f628d255f4/Semiotics-of-White-Spaces-on-the-Romanian-Traditional-Blouse-the-IA.pdf?origin=publication_detail (Accessed on 19 October 2018a)
[No title] (s.d.) At: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Magda_Buchczyk/publication/269280705_To_Weave_Or_Not_To_Weave_Vernacular_Textiles_and_Historical_Change_in_Romania/links/584fed3708ae4bc8993b3efc/To-Weave-Or-Not-To-Weave-Vernacular-Textiles-and-Historical-Change-in-Romania.pdf?origin=publication_detail (Accessed on 19 October 2018b)
Pacurar, A.E. (2012) SIMBOLURI ARHAICE ROMANESTI [ III ]. At: https://unaltfeldejurnal.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/simboluri-arhaice-romanesti-iii/ (Accessed on 14 October 2018)
Pink, S. and Afonso, A.I. (2004) Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography. (s.l.): Routledge.
Romania’s Secret Language (s.d.) At: https://martineclaessens.com/blog/2016/3/15/romanias-secret-language (Accessed on 14 October 2018)
The Science of Symbols: Setting Forth the True Reason for Symbolism & Ritual (s.d.) At: https://archive.org/stream/sciencesymbolss00blougoog#page/n45/mode/2up (Accessed on 10 December 2018)
Walker, J. (2014) 'The vernacular line: Adoption and transposition of the kitsch in illustration' In: Journal of Illustration 1 (1) pp.29–40.