Folk art often tends to have anonymous creators, unlike the fine arts, where artists can become household names. But when it comes to tramp art, a particular woodworking tradition that might reasonably sound like it was created by transients — complete with a mental image of a boxcar hobo whittling away at a scrap of wood — anonymity has been something of a stigma, reinforcing the notion that tramp art is a crude art form. But the term “tramp art” is misleading. The name refers to a style of making art, not to the people who made it.
The origin of the moniker can be traced to a specific article on the subject — and one that also happened to put tramp art on the map. The name was first applied in Frances Lichten’s 1959 piece “ ‘Tramp Work’: Penknife Plus Cigar Boxes” for Pennsylvania Folklife magazine. Museum of International Folk Art curator Laura Addison calls Lichten’s article seminal, as it was the first to identify tramp art’s defining characteristics: the use of recycled wood primarily obtained from crates and cigar boxes, specific notching and layering techniques, and utilitarian designs such as storage boxes, picture frames, wall pockets, and clock housings. These objects range from simple and rustic to intricate and ornate. Addison and the museum have assembled the first major tramp art exhibition in the U.S. in more than 40 years, and the majority of works on view are a marvel of craftsmanship and inventiveness. No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art opens at the Museum of International Folk Art on Sunday, March 12, and is also the title of a new book edited by Addison, out from Museum of New Mexico Press.
Much of the scholarship behind the exhibition had the purpose of identifying its makers and tracing the history of an art form that’s still practiced today. “There’s so much that’s misunderstood about tramp art that I wanted this project — the exhibition and the book — to wipe the slate clean and start again, looking at what we know, what we don’t know, what we think we know, et cetera,” Addison told Pasatiempo. “This applies to who made it, most pointedly — that is, not tramps, for the most part. That narrative about itinerants making these objects in railcars makes for a great story, but it is, by and large, not accurate.”
Yet there are examples of itinerant art in No Idle Hands. One work on display is a wall pocket made by a drifter named Johnny Clay in the 1920s. Still, most tramp art was produced by members of the working class. “They also tended to be either immigrants primarily from Northern and Eastern Europe, or they were born in the U.S.,” Addison said. “The areas that seem to have the highest concentrations of tramp art are Pennsylvania, New York State, Illinois, and Wisconsin. There’s a lot in Wisconsin.” In her book, Addison points to numerous examples of tramp art from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe. Fretwork, chip-carving, and other techniques from European woodworking practices influenced the style. “The chapters in the book map out a historiography of tramp art and also locate the nuances and uncertainties about the art form,” she said. “Where possible, I included work by makers whose names we know, in order to then build a case for who actually made tramp art, despite what the name suggests. Most artisans will remain unknown to us forever — few tramp art makers signed their works.”
Tramp art is typically made using flat pieces of wood, built up in progressively smaller layers to add dimension. The edges are carved in V-shaped notches. Some of the examples on display retain some recognizable elements from the cigar boxes they were made from, such as stamps and labels. These identifiers, in turn, help narrow down undated and unsigned pieces to a time frame. But works were often completely transformed and no longer resembled the objects from which the materials were originally taken. The exhibition includes, for instance, a late-19th- or early-20th-century gold-painted multi-compartment pedestal box that, with its abstract and geometric shape, appears more sculptural than utilitarian.
The majority of the objects are made for domestic use. The exhibit has a frame for a thermometer made by Alfred Osterling in 1899; a sewing box from 1896 with a built-in pincushion that mounts to a table by way of a hand-carved wooden clamp; a circa-midcentury full-sized desk with built-in electric lamps, and an elaborate mantle clock made in Canada in 1935 that stands over three feet high and bears the image of King George V. Some of the more embellished works, like the King George clock, are baroque, lavish in their ornamentation. The clock is decorated with animal figurines that symbolize the territories of the British Empire, according to Addison, who writes descriptively of its carved Tudor roses and maple leaves and the oval portrait of the king surrounded by relief carvings of the Union Jack.
The museum also managed to obtain an early-20th-century wall-hung dressing cabinet by artist John Zadzora; it is nearly identical to a piece by him that once belonged to Lichten, who rescued it from a pile of kindling at a Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse. Lichten marveled at its making, and it was the piece that — with such common iconographic tramp-art elements as hearts and birds — launched her interest in the art form. Lichten related this iconography to the idea of repentance. She believed that Zadzora made the piece while in jail for failing to support his wife, but according to Addison, who spoke with his family, he was married long after he was in jail.
Addison writes that hearts, birds, and other visual motifs were common in the works of Pennsylvania Germans, one of whom was an immigrant named John Scholl, who settled in Germania, Pennsylvania, in the 1850s. He had a saying — “Idleness is an unwanted stranger,” akin to the biblical proverb “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” — from which Addison derived her exhibit title.
An understanding of tramp art as a distinctive form with recognizable attributes developed over time. But it’s an art that, according to Addison, muddies the waters about how it should be defined. “Is it folk art?” she asked. “Is it vernacular art? Is it a hobby, a popular art form, a traditional art? Is it all of the above or none of the above? Sometimes these make for interesting avenues to pursue, but other times, it gets us stuck in an endless circle that distracts from some of the more interesting questions, like how did tramp art relate to the economics of the turn of the 20th century? What can it tell us about an Everyman’s art form in the modern era? What values from the Victorian era did it project?”
To salvage its legitimacy, tramp art had to be rescued from the malignancy of its detractors. It has been reviled since Lichten wrote about it in the late 1950s. Critics considered it ugly, gaudy, and ostentatious. Addison cited numerous examples of the harsh criticisms of the form. Tramp art is “the ugly duckling of folk art,” writes Bill Carmichael, author of Incredible Collectors, Weird Antiques, and Odd Hobbies (1971). And Michael Cornish, co-author with Clifford Wallach of Tramp Art, One Notch at a Time (1998), writes, “Some people consider tramp art one of the homeliest dust-gatherers that the human mind and hand have concocted.” But Addison points out that critics’ deep curiosity about the art form’s origins and its mostly unknown makers has led to revelations that contradict its relegation to the art world fringe, where it has been incorrectly associated with prison art — as Lichten did with Zadzora’s work — or lumped in with toothpick and Popsicle-stick sculptures, along with similarly resourceful but low-tech crafts. “Tramps, hobos, prisoners, sailors, misfits, and eccentrics — all were unnamed and unrecognized,” she writes, “identifiable only for their shared exclusion from respectable, mainstream society. The era of tramp artisanry coincided with the belief that economic failure was irreversibly tied to moral failure.”
We now know, thanks to scholars like Cornish, Wallach, author and appraiser Helaine Fendelman, and Addison — whose research must now be considered among them — that tramp art was mostly made by people who held steady employment, members of society who would not necessarily be considered outsiders. “In this show, for example, there is someone who worked as a chauffeur,” Addison said. “There are people who worked in mills. There are people who were carpenters. Freeland Tanner and his wife Sabrina are landscape designers. A lot of his work references botanicals.” Like Lichten, Tanner, a Napa-based contemporary tramp art maker, also developed an interest in the art form after being taken by an object he encountered by happenstance. In Tanner’s case, it was a small picture frame he found while perusing a shop in the Pacific Northwest. “That’s what got me going,” he told Pasatiempo. “So I started searching for these pieces. The ones that I make are things that I hope I could find in a shop but know I never could.” Tanner’s Celebration is included in the show. It’s a symmetrical altar, a painstakingly detailed show-stopper that has the appearance of woven basketry. It has a panel that folds down to reveal interior compartments. The top is inset with a circular mirror, and the work pays homage to tradition by including the common tramp art motifs of hearts and birds, not to mention a mind-boggling series of notches that cover the entire form.
“I’m influenced by all the periods in the antique world, if you will,” Tanner said. “I enjoy the journey through all that, and mixing different periods and eras and ideas. I like to take ideas from unexpected areas and employ them in some of the work.” As a child, Tanner, who was raised by his mother and grandmother, watched his grandmother while she sat in her rocking chair whittling and carving, but he didn’t start doing woodwork in earnest until later in life. As a teenager and young adult, he worked for a maker of leather goods. He also worked on antique cars and did welding and metalwork as well as auto painting. But from his grandmother he learned about facet work and laminating and other woodworking techniques. “I think she was trying to tell me about what tramp art is,” he said. “She grew up before there was electricity and saw the whole world evolve.” Addison writes that Tanner’s work is a hybrid of tramp art and other aesthetic styles, including the Baroque and Rococo. Some of Tanner’s work was also influenced by Spanish colonial tinwork from New Mexico, which he encountered in the Larry Frank collection of devotional objects at the Palace of the Governors. “I have such a great reverence for this tinwork that I wanted to use it to take this so-called tramp art in a different direction. It’s kind of like one art form impersonating another, in a way. I believe that’s where my focus is going with my woodwork. Maybe I’ll even get into the tin.”
Tanner is one of only a few contemporary tramp art makers working in the U.S. today. Others whose works are included in the exhibit are James Holmes, George Hightower, and Angie Dow. All these artists are self-taught, and all came to tramp art in a similar fashion, having first discovered examples that piqued their curiosity on the dusty shelves of antique shops or in public and private collections. They learned the craft by imitation, attempting to recreate tramp art’s stylistic conventions. After all, tramp art is, as Addison writes, citing a term used by basket maker John E. McGuire, a “silent teacher.”