Folk Art

Americana is in the air in my house this week. I brought home a print of the American 19th Century classic Peaceable Kingdom for the occasion of my wife’s birthday – we both love animals – and finally watched Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (screenplay by Bob Nelson).

Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom."

Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom.”

Edward Hicks was a Quaker from Langhorne, PA not far from my hometown of Trenton. A true folk artist, he was a decorative painter and sign painter, who actually made 60 versions of the same composition, Peaceable Kingdom, that made him a star among Quakers.

While looking around for a deal to get it framed, I peruse the internet and come across all the snarky things people are saying about George W. Bush putting up some of his original, folksy portraits in his own presidential library. All I can do is quote another Texan, the poet Dean Young: “POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!”

Salon. Huffpost. The Guardian. Don’t care.

I was honestly a lot angrier after watching Nebraska. I don’t mind languid pacing. I like black and white. I like simple landscapes being so omnipresent. I really like foul-mouthed grandmothers. And I positively love scenes in which facial expressions stand in for dialogue.

What I couldn’t abide by in Nebraska was the baldness with which every character stated their intentions so directly. It felt like I was reading an early draft of a story in which the writer leaves subtextual lines in place with the intent of going back later and burying them under more ephemeral dialogue. As if the simplicity of the story and the bleakness of the overall aesthetic justified the utter lack of any sophistication – in the literal sense, with a bit of sophistry. In my years in the Midwest I found small town people were more than capable of this; you could say they were masters of it!

If I were in Fort Worth and had a choice between watching Nebraska and seeing W’s paintings, I’d go with the folk artist not the Folk Artist.

The Dalai Lama, by George W. Bush.

The Dalai Lama, by George W. Bush.



  1. I love foul-mouthed grandmothers too, god bless ’em. I especially liked the one you met on the train who offered her review of the mariachi band (if I remember correctly). My favorite scene in NEBRASKA was the one with the guys watching TV. Their dialogue had the kind of banal-to-the-point-of-complete-emptiness that I remember older guys sharing in Little Chute. More of that definitely would have been welcome in the film, so we could see the bone shine through the tatters with which they try to dress it up. That’s what dramatic revelation is all about.

    Regarding Bush: I don’t know. Being “folksy” is his schtick. I don’t find his paintings any more charming than I did his “Aw, shucks” demeanor in office. If he wants to put folk art in his library, why doesn’t he find some folks to make it?

  2. “If he wants to put folk art in his library, why doesn’t he find some folks to make it?” Well put! Thanks. I guess the difference for me is one of expectation: Bush doesn’t have an Academy Award nomination, or the equivalent for a painter.

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