Museum of New Mexico Media Center Press Release

The Museum of International Folk Art Presents No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art

Museum of International Folk Art

October 17, 2016


For Immediate Release: October 17, 2016 (Santa Fe, NM) The Museum of International Folk Art presents No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art, the first large-scale museum exhibition dedicated to tramp art since 1975. The exhibition will present more than 150 examples of tramp art, concentrating on works from the United States, with additional examples from France, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Canada, Mexico and Brazil to demonstrate the far reach this art form has had. Additionally, the show will analyze and dismantle the myths and misperceptions about tramp art, particularly as they relate to assumptions related to class, quality, and the anonymity of the makers. No Idle Hands opens on March 12, 2017 and remains on display through September 16, 2018.

Tramp art describes a particular type of chip-carved woodwork that was practiced in Europe and the United States between the 1870s and 1940s, making use of discarded cigar boxes or crates that were then notch-carved along the edges and layered. Objects made were primarily boxes and frames, but other household objects such as small private altars, crosses, medicine cabinets, wall pockets, clock cases, plant stands, and even furniture can be found.

"Tramp art’s place in art history has been troublesome. It has had detractors—people who regard it as ’the ugly duckling’ of folk art—but also numerous champions," said Laura Addison, Curator of North American & European Folk Art at the Museum of International Folk Art, and the show’s curator. "This exhibition will erase any doubts about the quality and craftsmanship of the work and situate tramp art as a practice at the crossroads of cultural transformation at the turn of the 20th century," she said. Addison also pointed out that by juxtaposing historic pieces with those by contemporary artists working in the tramp art style, the exhibition frames this art form as an ongoing tradition that continues to capture the public’s imagination—myths and all.

"The ingenious objects in the Tramp Art exhibition use recycled or repurposed wood, and highlight a moment in time a century ago when artisans, many of them immigrants to the US, created a new variety of folk art," said Khristaan D. Villela, Director of the Museum of International Folk Art. "They are a testament to the ability of untrained artists to produce objects of immense beauty and complexity," he said.

For many years, tramp art was believed to have been made by itinerants and hobos, thus its name. It has been demonstrated, however, that this belief, first put in print by Frances Lichten in a 1959 Pennsylvania Folklife article, is erroneous. Nonetheless, the name "tramp art" has remained the only terminology used for this practice, and the paucity of scholarly studies to dispel the mistaken notions about tramp art have allowed the myths to persist.

Whittling objects such as wood chains and ball-in-cage whimsies was a common pastime, including among railriding "hobos," and some examples of tramp art were likely by the hand of itinerant laborers or artisans. However, this style of carving was more commonly the practice of family men and blue-collar factory workers making functional domestic objects or gifts for the women in their lives. Efforts have been made in recent years to identify makers by name and unearth their biographies; these personal narratives illustrate a very different story of the makers of tramp art. As these makers and their stories come to light, it has become obvious that home and family are central to an understanding of the practice of tramp art.

No Idle Hands will present tramp art objects according to four primary areas: Introduction/historical context, home & nation, frames & boxes and devotional objectsWorks in the exhibition will come from the Museum of International Folk Art permanent collection as well as loans from a number of private and museum collections across the country. An exhibition publication will accompany the exhibition, with essays by Laura Addison, Curator of North American & European Folk Art, Museum of International Folk Art; Leslie Umberger, a curator in the area of folk art and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and Eric Zafran, a retired curator of European art, most recently at the Wadsworth Atheneum. 

The Museum of International Folk Art Museum Shop is located in the museum at 706 Camino Lejo (Museum Hill just off Old Santa Fe Trail). 505-982-5186.

Media contact:
Jennifer Padilla

The Museum of International Folk Art is a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Museum of International Folk Art’s mission is "to enrich the human spirit by connecting people with the arts, traditions and cultures of the world." Founded in 1953 by Florence Dibell Bartlett, the museum holds the world’s largest international folk art collection of more than 150,000 objects from six continents and over 150 nations.

The museum’s collections represent a broad range of global artists whose artistic expressions make Santa Fe an international crossroads of culture. For many visitors, fascination with folk art begins upon seeing the whimsical toys and traditional objects within the Girard Collection. For others, the international textiles, ceramics, carvings and other cultural treasures in the Neutrogena Collection provide the allure.  The museum’s historic and contemporary Latino and Hispano folk art collections, spanning the Spanish Colonial period to modern-day New Mexico, reflect how artists respond to their time and place in ways both delightful and sobering. In 2010, the museum opened the Mark Naylor and Dale Gunn Gallery of Conscience, where exhibitions encourage visitors to exchange ideas on complex issues of human rights and social justice.

Over 90,000 national and international visitors visit the Museum International Folk Art every year. Through folk art, the museum encourages all to find a common ground upon which to craft better lives for all. 

Museum exhibitions and programs are supported by donors to the Museum of New Mexico Foundation and its Director’s Leadership Fund, Exhibitions Development Fund, and Fund for Museum Education, as well as by the International Folk Art Foundation, also established by museum founder Florence Dibell Bartlett.


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