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Folk art: it's not just for arty folks

An art consultant and collector shares her love for bold, affordable pieces by helping people and businesses fit them into any decor.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003

PALMA CEIA -- Katherine Gibson's collection of folk art reels visitors in like a good storyteller.

With its whimsical sense of narrative and bold, sometimes crazy colors that can turn a sky magenta or a cow purple, it manages to get nicely in one's face and hold one's attention.

Gibson, an art consultant who collaborates with homeowners and businesses, helping them "decide artwork direction" no matter what the genre, harbors a crush on folk art that's infectious.

"I love this stuff. It makes me jump up and down," she says. "I can't wait to put it around."

Whether it's a painting of a mask on a swath of tin or a woman wearing a dress of broken Blue Willow china, Gibson has managed to incorporate folk art into the decor of her contemporary South Tampa bungalow.

And it works.

A portrait she bought for $25 from a street artist outside New York's Museum of Modern Art catches the eye with colorful shading, fashioned from scraps of the Village Voice and a subway map. The painting rests inside a $4 junk store frame Gibson painted Radio Flyer red.

In her den, an acrylic on plywood painting by Plant City artist Ruby Williams depicts an imaginary girl named Miss Sure-Tell who sports a red hat and pink polka-dotted pants. On the back, Williams scrawled an inspired message: "I love people, she loves Jesus. Sunny day, Florida 1995."

Each piece beckons the viewer to linger and look. A surprise awaits at every turn. Outside the kitchen, red birds, angels, devils and sunflowers climb stalks of maize corn, the vision of New Mexico folk artist Mame DeSchillie.

In a painting by the late Sybil Gibson of Dunedin, three ghostly faces of women, painted on brown paper bag, appear hazy and ethereal, inviting the question: Who are they?

Gibson, who began collecting folk art about a decade ago, cheers up the exterior of her house with it, too. A small painting by Ruby Williams hangs outside her front door. Another is nailed to a tree in her leafy backyard.

"Like anything that has a presence -- your grandmother's antique chest, a beautiful vase -- folk art needs its own space," Gibson explains. "I try to let everything breathe."

Folk artists go by a lot of descriptors: self-taught, outsider, visionary. They haven't studied art. They paint from the heart and the message is usually raw and easily understood.

"Many folk artists paint from visions, dreams and prayers," Gibson says. "The work comes right from their souls."

The best part is that folk-art is affordable. And collectible.

For some of Gibson's clients, collecting folk art means incorporating it into a space shared with traditional furnishings, family heirlooms, even other styles of art.

"When I'm working with a client, I want them to make their own decisions, I don't recommend they change anything unless they ask me," Gibson says.

Shannon O'Hearn Downing displays two paintings by Ruby Williams -- lime-green and full of attitude -- against a cranberry wall on either side of a strapping armoire. The paintings depict two recurring Williams characters, Bonnie Bon Bonnie and Clever Bonds. Both are strong pieces and require physical separation in her decorating scheme. Too "raucous" to hang side by side, they demand individual attention, Downing says.

"I never pass these without having an internal smile" she says. "They are like mischievous children, the bad kids in Sunday school who you have to separate."

Her art collection includes exquisite fare like the antique Dutch horse painting in the living room of her family's Palma Ceia home. But folk art catches the eye in the most unexpected places. In a sunny, first-floor hallway, a painting by a Tallahassee artist, Missionary Mary Proctor, depicts three, willowy women the color of strong coffee.

Lime green, again.

The message: "For we walk by faith, not by sight."

Downing buys by instinct, allowing a piece to speak to her. Making it work within her house comes later, after she has looked at it awhile.

"I have no place in mind for it when I buy it," Downing says. "It's like clothes shopping. If you say I need to find the perfect shirt to go with something, you'll never find it."

Downing bought several of her folk art pieces at "Art House," an event that Gibson held twice in 2001 to show clients how art could look outside a gallery in a home setting. Eight artists were featured, including Ruby Williams.

Gibson had little money for advertising and spread the word through friends, neighbors, and her church bulletin; even a few strategically placed fliers at galleries. The interest was strong: the first event attracted 200 people; the second 400, she says.

"The thing about folk art is that it gets back to what people really respond to," Gibson says. "It's easy to look at, easy to figure out. It's not too intellectual. You usually know what it is."

Although her own furnishings are neutral, a client's home need not mimic hers. Incorporating folk art into a decor doesn't have to be tricky. Gibson keeps clutter to a minimum, allowing the art to tell story after story.

Cecilia Sayre began collecting about four years ago. Now the artwork decorates some of the most lived-in rooms of her Davis Islands home.

"We have it in areas where we gather the most. It's so bright and colorful and blends in nicely," she says.

Her motives went deeper: She wanted to help her 2-year-old daughter Gabriella and 4-year-old son Spencer develop an awareness and love of art.

"They tell me how much they like the colors. And they ask questions, too." In particular, Spencer asks about an orange piano-playing cow. "He says, what is that cow doing?"' Sayre says with a laugh.

As always, a good story usually follows.

-- Interested in folk art? Clayton Galleries, 4105 S. MacDill Ave. in Tampa, opened a new folk art exhibit last week. It runs through mid-March. Call 831-3753 for details.

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