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'Untitled' by Nellie Mae Rowe

Folk and Self-Taught Art

Not all great artists attended art schools. The artists featured in the High Museum’s folk and self-taught art collection instead were shaped primarily by lessons learned from family, community, work, and spiritual experiences. Some painted on canvas, while others depended on more readily available materials: stone from local quarries, decommissioned doors, scrapyard metal, and even bubble gum.

The High Museum began collecting the work of living self-taught artists in 1975 and was the first general interest museum to establish a dedicated department in 1994. This collection is especially rich in artworks by Southern and African American artists and features the largest groups of work by Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Nellie Mae Rowe held by any museum.

Although the majority of these artists could be identified as American or contemporary, we also call them “folk,” which underscores their status as artists of the people, or “self-taught,” to emphasize that they were not formally trained. However they are labeled, their legacy has greatly diversified and enriched the history of art, making it more inclusive of all people, regardless of race, educational background, region, or income level.

Watch Katherine Jentleson’s TEDx Talk on Folk and Self-Taught Art.

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