- Come Walk with Me: The Art of Dorris Curtis
When the topic of folk art comes up, be ready for a fight. Between or within disciplines there really is no broadly accepted definition of folk art. The term "outsider art," for example, is bound to make art historians feel comfortable but will generally rile folklorists. A solution that Henry Glassie came up with years ago (Spirit of Folk Art, Harry Abrams for Museum of New Mexico, 1989), which I find sensible, is to discard the whole idea of art as hierarchical; dismiss the entire structure and categorization of high art, folk art, popular art, and so forth; and just call it art. Following this approach and displaying aesthetic sensibilities throughout its [End Page 241] corpus, Come Walk with Me deserves a good look by art historians of whatever discipline. What is compelling about this work, equal to the art itself, are the cultural and personal contexts that enrich it so thoroughly.
Dorris Curtis was born in March 1908 in Oklahoma and lost her mother when she was five. Her father remarried soon after. Curtis went off to college, got married at eighteen, worked as a teacher, then worked in the railroad industry, and then went back to teaching in Arkansas. Throughout her life she was creative and involved with writing and both domestic and decorative crafts. Only when she was about to retire in 1973 did she decide to start painting. Although her model was Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses), she was different from Moses because she was educated in art history and knew and admired the regionalists, like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. She also greatly admired Salvador Dali and Vincent Van Gogh, among others. Throughout her life, she educated herself in writing, art, and educational theory, and she continued this education even after she retired, taking classes in art and art history and going to workshops in places as far afield as Mexico. In terms of Curtis's own artwork, all of this is significant. She was not fully a self-taught artist. She was educated, sought out models and techniques, and traveled to museums to see the art works she admired, though she drew mainly from her own life experiences. Most of her chosen topics date back to her first five years on this planet and document not only her own experiences but also what life was like more generally in rural Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The book's introductory piece, "My Life," is an engaging and informative autobiographical essay that reveals her values, motives, and the significant features of her life.
So what is the relevance of this book to folklorists? First, because art in general is not appreciated enough in folklore, we need to consider important studies as they come out. This book documents a large percentage of the works of this amazing woman, and most of the pieces have been donated to the University of Central Arkansas. The works themselves document the early years of twentieth-century American life from a female perspective and include tremendous details of folklife (the country store, the school, types of people, social interactions, toys, neighbors, doctors, pets, wild animals, domestic life, parties, religion, architectural details, chores, and so on). They exhibit much of the style that one would expect from regionalist painting (a focus on the middle landscape, images of people doing everyday tasks, and simple dimensionality). They also include features that might be unexpected, such as the incredible detail in the depiction of local architecture and even the grain and cut of the wood from which buildings and artifacts are made; the sensitive use of color and gradations; the intense, planned out symbolism of the people, artifacts, and even social interactions within the pictures. Curtis's method was to envision a scene in her mind from her youth and use it—like a short story—to represent the whole of her early childhood. The cultural and the...