April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
For years American folk art enthusiasts have been prowling inside attics and old barns to search out primitive objects from our creative past, yet all the time there has been another treasure outdoors, one often quite overlooked. It is the vast legion of imaginative folk figures that appear in our landscape as scarecrows, harvest figures, and snowmen, conceived in the best of folk art traditions. No two are alike; each projects its individual gesture and expression. And they rarely survive the season they are designed to celebrate. Every year tens of thousands of these fanciful effigies are manufactured by people totally unaware that they are participants in a contemporary, but seldom recorded, folk art tradition. The ones we show here are confined to New England, but others like them can be found almost anywhere.
Scarecrows are the most utilitarian of all this ephemeral clan. They are also the most romantic. From time immemorial these ragged apparitions have inspired poets, storytellers, and artists; they have graced the pages of literature from the Bible to Chaucer’s tales and La Fontaine’s fables, through Hawthorne’s stories right down to The Wizard of Oz . They are basically spontaneous, hastily improvised affairs that demonstrate the boundless ingenuity that can be embodied in a couple of sticks and a few old clothes.
The American scarecrow had its heyday in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It cut such a figure of sartorial elegance among the corn rows that tales of tramps exchanging their worn-out wardrobes for the scarecrow’s finer garb became legendary. Since then the art of scarecrow making has declined appreciably, depending more on working clothes and such pop art accouterments as aluminum pie tins held dangling in the wind. There was a time in America when no rustic scene would have seemed complete without some representation of this spectral image standing guard among the farmer’s crops, but they are rare today. Science now has more effective ways of discouraging marauding crows.
Harvest figures are gaudier manifestations of the common man’s creative urge. Their leaf-filled bodies and grotesque features carved from pumpkins or painted on paper bags are designed to celebrate Halloween and the autumn festival. Although they are comparative newcomers to the folk figure scene they have historic precedents in Old World superstitions and religious customs. Theirs is the eerie domain of warlocks and witches, of goblins and ghosts, of pagan gods and fairy folk, and of all those capricious spirits who cavort in October’s nocturnal revels. Since they are usually made by children, it is not surprising that these lighthearted figures are the most colorful and uninhibited members of the folk figure family.
Snowmen are the sand castles of an inclement season, and they are as fleeting as childhood itself. Winter provides the first real opportunity for young artists to make life-sized figures from a commonplace material, and they happily populate snowy landscapes with their sculptured images. Most are simple constructions, but a few are truly inspired and exhibit a bold imagination in the use of adornment that often transforms the lowliest snowman into a monument of artistic beauty.
Scarecrow, harvest figure, snowman—they are all creatures of whim and circumstance. They are provocative. They are at once beautiful and ridiculous. And they satisfy the inherent urge in all mankind to portray the human form, whether for artistic or utilitarian purposes. It is probable that these colorful but unsophisticated figures, however transient, provide some of the most expressive folk art of our time.