Generally speaking, folk artists have no formal training, nor do they require a culture of free sushi, wine and Friday night art walks. "These people have no access to the larger culture in terms of art dealers and galleries," says collector Willem Volkersz. "They have a perseverance, and they don't get that pat on the back that gallery artists get."
Volkersz, a former Montana State University professor, would know. His collection of American folk art — of which more than 100 pieces now make up Strange and Wonderful, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's first folk art exhibit — is one of the most highly regarded collections of its kind.
"They do this because they have to they do it," Volkersz continues. "It's because they love it, but these people are working against all odds and often their own daily work." Often, that means their artwork — sometimes called "outsider art" — receives little to no interest.
Though the term "folk art" is somewhat vague and can have negative connotations, some of the defining characteristics of the genre are those Volkersz mentions above, and also a pronounced importance in conveying a story. Many of these stories come to life through catharsis.
"Folk art is the development of these artists' own unique format and imagery, and they have a story to tell," Volkersz says. "It's something in their lives that they negatively experienced, such as divorce or a death. It gives them the emphasis to start telling their story. That's what I really have been interested in."
Volkersz and his wife Diane have been collecting folk art since the late '60s. Using a network of fellow professors and other connections, he was able to find hidden artists, like Andrew Johnson, who was born in Denmark and died in Montana in the 1930s. And as an artist himself, he was able to gain their trust, learning not only about the stories they're compelled to tell, but about the artists as people.
For instance, Volkersz's collection features the work of late artist Arthur Frenchy, who has become a larger research project. "I discovered his parents were born into slavery," he says. "It's been a real fascinating research project where my wife and I will hit the road and set up meetings with librarians and in courthouses to figure out who this person was."