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10 Famous American Folk Painters

10 Famous American Folk Painters

It’s tough to know what strikes the muse of American folk painters. 

Is it religion, an accident, or a series of unfortunate events? Perhaps it’s nostalgia for one’s youth and days gone by. 

Regardless, these incredible artists are highly expressive in their own aesthetics.

Join us as we visit ten renowned American folk painters. 

Let’s go!

What Is American Folk Art?

American folk art emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. People revived old artistic traditions and passed them down from one generation to the next. 

Nothing has a more intimate connection with a person and their culture than folk art. It encompasses the artist’s personal expression in a visual form as experienced by their community.

American folk painters do not follow traditional norms like perspective and lighting. Their paintings may be bold in color and highly stylized. The results provide a cultural legacy unlike any other. 

#1 Clementine Hunter

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught Black folk artist from the Cane River region of Louisiana. Born in 1887, her Creole family lived and worked in the post-civil war south. Clementine never learned to read or write formally. 

Described as a memory painter, Hunter documented Black southern life in the early 20th century. She recorded everyday scenes she felt historians overlooked. The paintings are clean, bright images, often with the undertones of protest in race and gender. 

Clementine died at the age of 101. She produced 5,000 to 10,000 paintings and other items like quilts. Throughout her, later life, presidents, museums, and colleges recognized her contributions to contemporary art. 

#2 David C. “Snap” Wyatt

David C. “Snap” Wyatt grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and joined the circus at age 14. Following World War II, Snap moved to the Tampa, Florida, area, where he quickly became one of his era’s most productive sideshow banner artists. 

The banners were up to ten feet tall and covered tent entrances to shows. Wyatt’s banner paintings gave just enough detail with bright colors to draw people into the mystery of what was in the tent. 

At one point, Snap produced as many as two hundred banners in a year. Circus and sideshow banner art is a rare practice today. Wyatt’s historical curiosities are challenging to find. Museums and galleries house his work and often sell for thousands of dollars. 

#3 Grandma Moses

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, Grandma Moses, began a successful career as a folk art painter around age 76. She dabbled in art throughout her life, using natural materials and regular household items available to her with which to paint. It was not until after the death of her husband that she became a famous primitive folk artist. 

As a folk painter, Moses depicted nostalgic scenes of rural America. Like Clementine Hunter, she painted images based on her life experiences. 

Grandma Moses’ works can be seen in museums and galleries worldwide. Today, a Moses oil painting on pressed wood may sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

#4 Howard Finster

A Baptist minister from Georgia, Howard Finster is one of the most famous religious artists known today. He’s often credited with introducing millions to outsider art. Finster had spiritual visions that eventually led him to create Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. 

Open to the public, the garden contains rambling sculptures and scripture with direct inspiration from God. Finster was a pioneer, showing art can thrive outside museums in ordinary places.

#5 Jimmy Lee Sudduth

Born in 1910, Jimmy Lee Sudduth was a Black American folk painter from Fayette, Alabama. He finger-painted amazing earth-toned pictures from natural materials. 

Sudduth was an early, self-taught outsider artist. His work embodied the culture of the rural south, depicting people he knew, architecture, flowers, animals, and rarely religious figures. 

“You see that black mud? All you got to do is take that black mud and put you a little sugar in it. Stir it up and sweeten it. Add a little water, and you can paint all day,” Sudduth said. 

#6 Lee Godie

Jamot Emily Godee, Lee Godie, was a self-taught Chicago artist between the 1960s and 1990s known for her painting and photography. After the deaths of two of her children, she reinvented herself as a folk art painter. Though known to have plenty of money, Godie lived on the streets, mainly sleeping outdoors. 

Lee would spread her materials on the grass and paint in parks. She focused mainly on full-frontal portraits or profiles of figures, often from popular culture. Godie’s mediums of choice were oil, tempera, or watercolor, sometimes with pen and pencil on canvas.

Godie described herself as a French Impressionist. Her work displayed a singular vision of an intuitive, masterful self-taught artist to those who sought it out.

#7 Merle Locke

Merle Locke is an Oglala Lakota ledger artist on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota. He learned to paint alongside his brother and, as an adult, studied art with his father. 

Locke strives to create historically accurate art. He predominantly paints historical scenes of Native American warriors on the Great Plains. He uses the style originated by Plains tribes on animal hides, creating narrative drawings and paintings on paper or cloth. 

As a Lakota artist, Locke hopes to express and reflect on his history and culture with a better understanding. His artwork is a part of keeping the traditions of his ancestors alive. 

#8 Mose Tolliver

Mose Ernest Tolliver was born into a large sharecropper family around 1918 to 1920 near Montgomery, Alabama. An on-the-job accident crushed Tolliver’s legs. He turned to his painting regularly to combat boredom and idle time. 

Like other American folk painters, Tolliver used the materials found around him. He worked with house paint on plywood, door frames, or tabletops, creating whimsical pictures of animals, people, and plants. His later paintings feature a metal soda can ring for display purposes.

After a showing in “Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980” in Washington, D.C., Tolliver was in demand throughout the country. Much of his work is currently in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

#9 Purvis Young

Purvis Young was a Black folk art painter born in 1943. After a stint in prison for breaking and entering, he began producing thousands of drawings that he pasted into old books and magazines. He picked up street and mural art, then started painting. His images are fascinating, colorful depictions of everyday life and his exploration of American history. 

Young displayed his work on the boarded-up windows and walls of closed shops in the vacant Jamaican Goodbread Alley. As they accumulated, the pictures became an almost graffiti-style collage. Slowly, his paintings gained respect, and tourists began to buy them. 

With media attention due to his local popularity, Young gained contemporary cult recognition from patrons such as Jane Fonda and Jim Belushi. 

#10 R.A. Miller

Born in 1912 near Gainesville, Georgia, R.A. Miller is another outsider folk artist who gained attention later in life. Like Howard Finster, Miller found inspiration from the Baptist ministry. 

Unable to drive or tend to his hogs due to glaucoma, Miller said the spirit led him to cut out figures and whirligigs from old roofing tin. He filled his property, inside and out, with religious and patriotic painted creations. 

The band R.E.M filmed a video on Miller’s property among his whirligigs. His inclusion brought him international attention. 

Inspirational American Folk Painters

Whether by nostalgia, divine inspiration, or hardship, we love the inventiveness exhibited by these American folk painters. Their ability to use available resources truly reaches limitless creativity. 

These remarkable people have us motivated!  In fact, not only do we have some of these artists’ pieces in our collection but we’ve also tried our hand at reproducing some of their techniques. You can see their art and ours at Outsider Folk Art on Instagram or in our Artsy gallery.

Do you have a favorite American folk painter? Let us know who it is in the comments!

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