The Folk Art of Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country

The folk art of Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country suggests fundamentally a meeting of cultures and the dialogue which has ensued between them. Low country sea grass basket weavers originally adapted their west African art to work on the rice plantations, and now find their art influenced by the less practical concerns of consumers along Highway 17.Sam Doyle's folk painting suggests an Afro-Carolinian sensibility, originating in the largely untouched community of St. Helena Island where an African sense of color merged with the sun of the South Carolina Low Country. Philip Simmons' blacksmithing appears an art originally more European in form, adopted by the African American artisan community in the time of slavery on the plantations, a tradition continued to this day by direct descendants.

Perhaps an apt definition of the term "folk art" is needed here. George D. Terry, director of the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, writes in his introduction to Dale Rosengarten's account of the sea grass basket tradition that "though the creation of folk art can be considered a personal statement, it is also the response to a demand." This statement seems to fit perfectly into consideration of the creation of the baskets, originally a craft necessity in African rice growing cultures and on the plantations of South Carolina; but the circumstances surrounding the creation of the baskets have undergone several changes and influence is now largely dictated by the individual creator's aesthetic judgment and by the wishes of consumers along Highway 17. Folk art, in this sense, cannot solely be about craft and necessity. Sam Doyle's paintings seem not to be concerned with necessity or craft usefulness at all. They choose rather to reflect an artistic sensibility, through coloration, medium, and subject matter, that is situated outside of mainstream or dominant culture. Doyle's paintings are full of rich Carolina blues and reds and his canvases often consisted of whatever happened to be around -- old car doors, for instance.

His work depicts a wide range of subject matter concerned solely with the community in which he lived. It seems, then, that "folk art" must necessarily be that of the "other," a community outside dominant taste and sensibility which produces work largely of its own style and concern. It is important to note here, however, that, while the people of these "other" cultures may consider themselves fringe or outside dominant discourse, it is the dominant culture itself which labels them "other." And so, under the guise of an attempted but impossible objectivity, we endeavor to view this "folk art" as meaningful in and of itself, reflective of unique communities often unnoticed by those of us in the center.

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