Just as there is rural folk art, there is urban folk art. The urban scarecrows, topiary, handmade grave markers made by relatives, scratches in wet cement… So here is a look at various urban folk arts in the vast metropolis of Melbourne.
Folk art is made by amateurs, not professional artists or even students, and there is no intention to be taken seriously or do anything but satisfy themselves. (In this respect, graffiti is a folk art). It is not intended to be assessed, discussed or traded. It is not an art form that is mediated financially or academically.
However, urban folk art shouldn’t be ignored because it is not professional. It is done for pleasure, not profit or glory. It is part of our visual culture. The aesthetics are simple, a face or other resemblance or a decoration. If there is a message, it is a direct message to a limited audience; there are no references or tributes.
The critic’s role in discussing folk art is not to examine technique, taste or quality but to look at the diversity of decorative items and their relationship to the community. In the urban world, where almost everything is done by professionals with standards, urban folk art stands out, like the homemade grave markers I saw at the Coburg Cemetery. And in this diversity, there will be impressive works because of their scale or technique — for example, the sizeable grotto and mixed media constructions at the Veg Out Garden in St Kilda.
The Moreland Free Library is a miniature version of the original train station. This was constructed during the lockdown when various urban folk arts flourished, along with spoon gardens and chalk sidewalk drawings. The impressive carpentry is the work of one local amateur. There are other miniature buildings as libraries in parts of the US.
Although some folk art is impressive, we should not ignore small juvenile urban art projects like spoon gardens or painted rocks, like the Coburg Primary Painted Rock City. Their painted rocks are the opposite of monumental sculpture, an almost hidden sculpture with multiple creators of small units where each builds the rock community.
Most urban folk art is on private property, particularly in gardens. What is public property is mostly unauthorised but tolerated, like yarn bombing, guerilla gardening, or the painted rock city. (Only graffiti seems to be objected to.) Or, the Gnome Village in Keilor Park, listed on Google Maps, is just off the Calder Freeway. Or, the toy tree in Coburg, where toys that would have been thrown out hang from a tree.
For long before recycling was a word, long before Arthur Danto wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, folk artists have used found materials. Up-cycling has the cornball appeal of a something-for-nothing sales pitch. In a corny part of this urban folk art, there is the use of readymade/fly-tipping as street art.
Ten years ago, I wrote another blog post about Urban Folk Art. In it, I considered whether graffiti is folk art, as well as considering mail art, punk DIY, and Dadaist collage. Rather than examining urban folk art, I was distracted by its influence on art.