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Ruby Smith

Influences of American Folk Art and How It Develops Through Cultural and Social Awareness
American Folk art was widely created as a way in which to convey stories of folk tales in a simplistic, visual and entertaining way. It was originally used as a form of expression for those who were uneducated as a way to express cultural identity and to convey traditional values. As a style is became popular because of it’s utilitarian designs and resourceful media, it also involved a naive style of art without restrictions of proportion and perspective. It is difficult to put an exact year on when the American Folk art culture began, the New York American Folk Art Museum divides their gallery into decades, the first being 1961-71 through to 1991-2001. However, because of it’s tangibility from furniture to quilts, paintings and sculpture; it is more probable that the date is before that. Women making patchwork quilts for their children or tribal flags for instance, can be classed as folk art culture. Does ‘folk art’ appear today or are elements of folk only produced by artists directly influenced by folk art? Margaret Kilgallen was an American painter and street artist who was influenced by folk art, 19th century typography and surf culture. Kilgallen was part of the Mission District art movement which developed in San Francisco in the early 90s, collaborating ideas and creative people, known for it’s local and political artists such as artist and husband of Kilgallen, Barry McGee (known by his tag name as Twist) as well as Stephen S. Powers (ESPO), Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) and Harmony Korine (Gummo). The aesthetic of which was described as “...heartfelt, handmade and deeply observational” Helfand, G. 2002,The Mission School” USA: San Francisco Guardian has also been ironically nicknamed as “New Folk” Joo, Eungie. 2002. "The New Folk”, Flash Art, May/June 2002, is street art the modern equivalent of folk art? (however; write critiques?)

Art:21, 2010, Barry McGee & Margaret Kilgallen III [image screen capped from video] Available at: [Accessed on 3rd August]

This image was screen capped from a short documentary featuring both Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen for Art:21, she describes her work ethic and her documentation of the area around her, the image right is how she incorporated her imagery into works of art.

Margaret Kilgallen, 2000, Money To Loan [image online] Available at: 2008/09/artist-of-weekmargaret-kilgallen.html [Accessed on 3rd August]

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Kilgallens influences came from hand-painted signs in San Francisco as well as traditional American Folk art; “On any day in the Mission in San Francisco you can see a handpainted sign that is kinda funky, and maybe that person, if they had money, would prefer to have a neon sign, but, I don’t prefer that. I think it’s beautiful what they did and that they did it themselves.” Beautiful Losers, 2008 [film] Directed by Aaron Rose. USA: Sidetrack Films. Seeing a persons hand in the [Linda Benson carrying a surf board] n.d [image world was a big influence into her own work, much of the online] Available at: imagery she used in her murals were taken straight from her albums/o215/PICcaster34/LindaBenson2.jpg own first hand observations:Accessed on 4th August 2012 She took imagery in a community and saw the beauty within it, incorporating it into her own artistic world. Bringing the typography alive with bright acrylics and a narrative. Her work was based on real people and experiences, which frequently depicted strong female figures, smoking, surfing as well as natural elements which link to the idea of fertility and reflect her pro-economic views. Folk art is commonly painted using warm earthy colours in close observation to the landscape, Kilgallen used these colours along with “oops paint” a cheap badly mixed acrylic in discontinued colours, her admiration for people creating art from as few resources as possible inspired her to turn found items into work, discarded paint, old wood used for canvas. Her biggest influences, come from the “surf” culture that she is very much a part of, for instance she made reference to legendary female surfer Linda Benson in her work, dedicating the painting “Backside” to her. “Things i draw come from a combination of people I see, I once saw a photo of a female surf pioneer named Marge Calhoun that inspired me to do a painting of her, but the way i depicted her stance on the board and the position she has her arms in is actually [Marge Calhoun on surfboard taken from an old man I saw surfing in Malibu” Pepin, E. 1999, “The art of Margaret
painting] n.d [Image online] Available at:http:// my_weblog/images/2007/10/27/ kilgallen_lindamar.jpg Accessed on 4th August 2012 Kilgallen” USA: Juxtapoz May/June 99.

Kilgallens background was mainly in letterpress and printmaking which she studied at both Colorado College and Stanford University. In the 1990’s she also worked as a book binder and librarian which also contributed to her extensive knowledge of folk art and use of typography in her work.

Her larger than life paintings would take cherry-pickers to paint, she would fly to the gallery or museum, set up and paint for as much time as the gallery could permit her to do so. Her largest and longest mural taking two and a half weeks, at the drawing room in New York, she would paint on a cherry-picker scaling the walls painting letters 25ft tall with a 12 inch roller. There are not many artists who would agree to spend hours on a semi permanent installation only to be painted over
(left to right) Image of exhibition and Margaret painting both available at:http:// margaret-kilgallen Accessed on 4th August 2012

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after it’s time at the gallery, but not Kilgallen, perhaps it’s her history with street art being constantly changed and covered, “I like that my murals in the galleries and museums get covered over at the end of the show. It is a freedom to go and do something and then have it disappear”
Pepin, E. 1999, “The art of Margaret Kilgallen” USA: Juxtapoz May/June 99

Kilgallen, M. 1997, Matokie Slaughter. [image online], San Francisco Available at: http:// Accessed on 8th August 2012

Kilgallen, M. 1998, Matokie Slaughter. [image online], San Francisco. Available at: 85591960@N00/772783494/ Accessed on 8th August 2012

Street art and graffiti are commonly described together, however over the years through government campaigns, minority opinions and general ignorance it can be argued that graffiti has developed negative connotations. However, it is considered visually as form of modern folk art, a cultural identity of those in the community, “The public looks at graffiti and sees garbage and sees ugliness and i wonder why they don’t look at the billboards especially in San Francisco there are millions everywhere. Isn’t that garbage?- mind garbage” Art:21, 2010, Barry McGee & Margaret Kilgallen III [video]
Available at: [Accessed on 3rd August]

Along with her contemporary work she also took part in public street art and graffiti using the name “Matokie Slaughter” or “Meta” after a banjo player she took an interest in. She believed the open city landscape was for communicating your own ideas to a much larger audience, “If you’re dong something in the city, then hopefully you’re speaking to somebody who has an open mind who is walking by. And you’re also speaking to a community of other people who do similar types of work. I like to think that the outdoor community is broad and able and open for anybody to see” (Beautiful Losers, 2008 [film] Directed by Aaron Rose. USA: Sidetrack Films). Although she lived a relatively short life, passing at 33 years old, she was both pregnant and suffering from breast cancer. Kilgallen had to choose between having treatment and the baby, she chose the baby. She successfully gave birth to a daughter, Asha but sadly passed away three weeks later. This determination and selflessness carried through in into her artwork and the people in which her artwork will continually inspire; “The fact that maybe, somebody will learn from what i’m doing”. Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 1: Place, 2001 [video] USA: Art21

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Margaret Kilgallen, 1999, To Friend and Foe [image online] Available at: [Accessed on 3rd August]

This piece of work by Margaret Kilgallen was part of her “To Friend and Foe” exhibition in 1999, at the time she would of been at the early stages of breast cancer, which may have influenced the imagery and text in the pictures. The words ‘stubborn’ and ‘pride’ dictate feelings of apprehension and disbelief over her illness or with the word “pride” could also reference work within the community to get young people inspired by art. Although each image is a piece of artwork in it’s own right, the collage of images brings it together as a whole. The linking colour palette of mustards and greens against a background of similar shades holds it together with the background very differently to if it was otherwise left white. The layering gives the piece depth and it almost seems limitless as it goes onto the walls around. It dictates feelings of community, through the use of natural imagery symbolise new life and development contrasting against the ‘old time’ use of carnival lettering and street signs.

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Margaret Kilgallen, 1999, part of the To Friend and Foe exhibition, name unknown, [image online] Available at: 6a00d8341bf66653ef00e552934f738833-800wi [Accessed on 3rd August]

This piece incorporates multiple pieces of discarded fabrics sewn together and worked into using paint. I particularly like the way the woman on the far right is physically restricted by the size of the rectangle, her neck arching down and her hand in a giving motion to the second larger lady. This image captures the idea of giving and receiving, as it is the key motion between the two characters. Unlike the other pieces I have previously analysed Kilgallen paints the characters with a yellow skin tone which may reference a certain group or tribe of people perhaps farm workers (although their outfits do not take note of this) or perhaps because of the background colours Kilgallen believed that by using a vibrant yellow they would become more significant to the final piece opposed to painting them white. Due to the nature of the fabrics and possibly the way Kilgallen has painted the background the pieces

have a taught leathery look. The carnival font and natural elements come into play once again and the layering and overlapping of fabrics is reminiscent of typical folk art pieces entitled ‘crazy quilts’. I came across crazy quilts when consulting an ‘American Folk Art’ book whilst looking for references to Kilgallens work, the crazy quilt below took my attention as something she may of been inspired by when producing this piece. Crazy quilts were made with discarded or scrap materials in different sizes and shapes something that is much less restricted than a patchwork quilt, you don’t need to plan and measure but make up as you go along. Due to Kilgallens work ethic of reworking discarded materials, the crazy quilt seems like a very complementing medium to her work. The woman being of the same origin, with a similar colour theme and style is reminiscent of an Asafo flag. This encompasses the idea that this piece of work, much like tribal flags, elaborates on Kilgallens own ‘tribe’, surroundings and feelings of belonging. Tribal flags were used a representation of a group or race, and they were usually brightly coloured with bold designs, multiple images, symbols and text often portraying simple activities such as everyday life or a recent event in the tribe.

Artist Unidentified, 1885-1890, ClevelandHendricks Crazy Quilt, [image online] Available at: p=folk&t=images&id=4260 [Accessed on 3rd August]

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Kilgallen, M. Unknown date of production, Unknown Title [image online] http://

In this piece by Kilgallen she has used rectangles of the same size to produce a mosaic or quilt effect. The dark colours and rustic texture of the pieces gives the image a worn out discarded feel, however this could also be a reflection on the traditional labor of metal craft. This piece is slightly more masculine than her others, the female portrayal is slight and faded, the women do not stand out or draw your eye to focus them specifically. Instead, you have to wonder and delicately study the piece to discover them which references the fact that metal work is a male industry and traditionally focused on masculine qualities and strengths which were unseen to traditional assumptions of women. The colours although are natural and earthy are bold and harsh, the composition and cut of each space also relates to this. The lettering is varied also, some is in carnival font and others is reminiscent of 19th century typography, perhaps she is apprehensive about what is going to be put into this work or perhaps is going through a confusing period in her life that has caused her to use different variations of type. From looking at folk art it is clear that Kilgallen was influenced by the patchwork quilts produced in the civil war period, conveying images of vegetation and livelihood. Broken up into different sections, pattens and themes patchwork quilts had a more personal use than flags in folk art yet both had the same meanings surrounding them.

Unidentified Artist, 1858-186, Bird Of Paradise Quilt Top, [image online] Available at: p=folk&t=images&id=1739, American Folk Art Museum, 2979.1 (cotton wool silk and ink with silk embroidery)

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Kilgallen, M, unknown date, unknown title, [Image online] Available at: Accessed on: 20th August 2012

The main focus of the piece is the couple, their traditional clothing and basic colour scheme of brick reds, washed out yellows and pale greens enforce the folk art flatness of Kilgallens work. The woman in the image stares to the right towards the group of abstract squares the colour of which both softens and links the painting to the paint palette of the couples clothing like a swatch. This also poses as an obstacle in the couples way towards a journeys end to the tree which towers above. Natural imagery such as trees, leaves and agricultural symbols are key features of Kilgallens work and are key statements in folk art. Folk art depicted everyday life and experiences of those at the time, native americans and cherokee indian tribes amongst others would pray for good crop and many men would travel to live and work off the “fat of the land” in search of the American dream. The curved carnival font below boarders the image, the golden hills suggest the uneven platform in which San Francisco's is built on, it is also one that Kilgallen knows well. The gold colour could give suggestion to the gold rush which started in 1848 and consequently funded and brought together the large colourful community apparent in the california area. The colour could also refer to the dusty dry landscape of the area also. The small seedling gives the image a certain hope, especially to grow in such harsh terrain. The couple look tired and weary yet there is a sense of hope and optimism within this piece that spans further than the seedling. Kilgallen would be both heavily pregnant and dying of breast cancer at the time of this painting so perhaps the lone seedling brings homage to this. The woman is looking at her life, the large spanning tree in front of her is the future of her child.

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When researching Margaret Kilgallen I was particularly interested by her work aesthetic and the symbolism she embeds into her work. I produced the first layer poly-block print inspired by both Kilgallens natural imagery and use of female sexuality. The tree represents fertility and virtue, it’s hanging branches linking to ovaries and the womb. The texture of the print is interesting, because unlike Kilgallens block colour paintings by hand I have created something natural in it’s own right in a sense that the print is not something that I planned, but reveals itself afterwards. I chose to use the colour red to both contrast the background and to portray feelings of sex, passion and danger. The image itself was a first hand observation of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet by David Lynch. The use of colour also reflects her characterisation in the film as a sexual predator and seductress. This image being layered on top makes her seem like she is encompassing the tree which signifies her overwhelming control over her sexuality. My decision to layer the image came from printing various experiments on tracing paper, holding them up to windows and putting them above different textures.

This response was influenced by folk arts flat graphic aesthetic. I created this piece by paper cutting the leaves and other details before screen printing the piece on to different coloured backgrounds. Unlike the piece I previously analysed, the image was not visually pleasing layered on top of itself by looking blurred and cluttered. However, the bold use of colour and simple design makes the piece an effective folk art response. Due to the nature of paper cutting the mood of the piece was harsh, I decided to soften the image by adding the boarder of old printer paper and screening the circles at the top and bottom.

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When researching about gender subversion and the Beauty Myth I came across knitting as a traditional form of craft for women. Wool is a very natural fibre, one that would of been used historically for warmth and due to it’s durability it can be used to produce anything from garments to toys and accessories. This piece ties in with the traditional qualities of folk art combined with my own personal connection to the craft. I decided to experiment and manipulate the knitting that I had produced especially because of how varied and personal knitting is. For instance, few knitters knit similar pieces and like taste it is so tangible and varied because everyone has their own style in its production. Some are tighter and precise whilst others are looser or drop stitches. Due to this it seemed important to me that the knitting was used in a self portrait of myself giving the image a close personal connection to me. I made the decision to scan and cut the knitting I had produced because knitting or embroiding into a piece on it’s own can be messing and ineffective and I wanted the sharp defined edges of the finished product. Overall I like this piece, the knitted texture is captured well in a flat graphic where I would of thought otherwise. The colours used as subtle and the beiges make the image seem earthy and soft whilst also complimenting the other darker tones in the picture.

This piece is the front cover of my final piece which explores a feminist narrative poem called Little Red Cap by Carol Ann Duffy. The poem is based on the folk take of Little Red Riding Hood. This story however follows a more perverse sexual deviance in the character role, Duffy subverts traditional gender relations and portrays the protagonist unlike her passive, innocent counterpart. I experimented by using rollers on the background, changing the amount of paint and size of roller. Whilst doing this I discovered that different shapes were being formed which looked like veins or roots of plants. The natural imagery that was produced reminded me of the natural influences the Kilgallen used within her work. This also produced a interesting textured background for the collage to be produced on. It was very important, that although there are

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multiple cut outs and details happening in this image that by keeping a similar colour scheme it doesn’t become overwhelming. To add to this I cut and layered tissue paper which, because of it’s transparency produces a very subtle shape against the background which isn’t bold or overly obvious to the image. The story is centered around the setting of the forest which acts as a protagonist in itself ripping her stockings to shreds and taking her shoes. There is a supernatural element around the forest which seems to abduct her at “sweet sixteen” and frees her when she adopts a sense of independence and fulfillment. I believe that this piece portrays what I wanted to get across from my representation of the narrate also, due to the beginning and end of the poem being closely related this image can represent either part so by using it the piece becomes a circular narrative art piece in itself.

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Bibliography and Sources Kira Cochrane, 2009. Margaret Kilgallen: Art on the edge, Guardian Online, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 July 2012]. David Bonetti, 2001. S.F Graffiti Artist Margaret Kilgallen, San Francisco Chronicle Online, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 July 2012]. John Stanford, 2001. Rising Young Artist Margaret Kilgallen Dead At 33, Stanford Report, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 19 July 2012]. Elizabeth Pepin, 1999, The Art Of Margaret Kilgallen, Juxtapoz, [online] Available at: < http://> [Accessed 19 July 2012] Holland Cotter, 1999. Art In Review; Margaret Kilgallen To Friend and Foe [Online] Available at: < [Accessed 19 July 2012] Eugene Joo, 2000, Margaret Kilgallen, [online] Available at: < detail/exhibition_id/56> [Accessed 19 July 2012] Belin Liu, 2010, Sm{art} Margaret Kilgallen, [online] Available at: < margaret-kilgallen> [Accessed 19 July 2012] Amy Armato, 2009, Inspiration File// Margaret Kilgallen, [blog] Available at: <http://> [Accessed 24 July 2012] Art Splash Contemporary Art, 2011, Margaret Kilgallen - Summer / Selections - Ratio 3 - San Francisco. [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 July 2012] Tyler Green, 2012, SFMOMA Acquires A Major Margaret Kilgallen, [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 July 2012] Leah Modigliani, 2004, Marketing the Mission, [Online] Available at: features/marketing_the_mission/ [Accessed 20 July 2012] William Poundstone, 2011, LACMA’s Lost Street Art, [online] Available at: lacmonfire/2011/04/20/lacmas-lost-street-art-2/ [Accessed 5 August 2012] William Poundstone, 2011, Art In The Streets MOCA, [online] Available at, lacmonfire/2011/04/18/art-in-the-streets-at-moca/ [Accessed 5 August 2012]

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Templeton. E, 2001, Margaret Kilgallen, Transworld Skateboarding, [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 August 2012] Books and Magazine Strike, C. and Rose, A. 2005, Beautiful Losers, Contemporary Art and Street Culture, 2nd Ed, USA: Distributed Art Publisher Hollander, S. Anderson B. and Wertkin, D. 2002, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum, USA: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Harding, D. and Fisher, L. 2001, Home Sweet Home; The House Of American Folk Art, NYC: Rizzoli Longenecker, M. 1997, American Expressions of Liberty: Art Of The People, By The People, For The People, USA:Abrams Patterson, T, 2001, Contemporary Folk Art; Treasures From The Smithsonian American Art Museum, NYC: Watson-Guptill Ward, G. 2001, American Folk: Folk Art From The Collection Of The Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, Museum Of Fine Arts Baker, A. and Joo, E. 2007, Margaret Kilgallen: In The Sweet Bye Bye, 2nd Ed, California Institute Of The Arts Templeton. E, 2001, Margaret Kilgallen, Transworld Skateboarding, 19(11), p.380 Pepin, E. 1999, The Art Of Margaret Kilgallen, Juxtapoz, 20, p.46-49, p.63 Video Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 1: Place, 2001 [video] USA: Art21, v=3od1xKEAFY4 Beautiful Losers, 2008 [film] by Aaron Rose. USA: Sidetrack Films The Old Weird America: With Robin Held and Greil Marcus- Part 3, Margaret Kilgallen : 2001 [video] USA: Frye Art Museum;