Folk Art and Aging: Life Story Objects and Their Makers (Material Vernaculars)

By Jon Kay. 2016. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN: 978-0-253-02216-5 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Simon Bronner, Missouri University of Science and Technology

[Review length: 1120 words • Review posted on May 31, 2017]


[Cover ofFolk Art and Aging: Life Story Objects and Their Makers]

Folklorists have long been at the forefront among culturally oriented professionals of working with older adults to draw out recollections of past traditions. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in her introduction to The Grand Generation by Marjorie Hunt, Steve Zeitlin, and Mary Hufford even declared “The field of folklore has been built from the memories of the elderly” (Smithsonian Institution Press 1987, page 12). The irony is that folklorists often ask elders about life in their youth rather than their present surroundings. And despite the central role of age in the documentation of folklore, the process and social psychological factors of aging have been infrequently studied, even less frequently theorized. For example, Patrick B. Mullen’s Listening to Old Voices (University of Illinois Press 1992), an often-cited book for the use of expressiveness of the elderly as an adaptation to old age, came together by happenstance rather than as a result of a research plan. Mullen admits in the introduction that he looked for “a unifying theme to hold together widely diverse field research materials” (1) and realized that most of the tradition bearers he interviewed were elderly. Folk Art and Aging by Jon Kay also is a byproduct of consultation with a variety of older folk artists that coalesced into a more focused study on the use of crafted objects as forms of “life review” by older adults. Precedent for this approach is evident in coverage of material “life review projects” in The Grand Generation.

While it clearly builds on these precedents with an ample number of epigraphs and citations, what sets Folk Art and Aging apart is its emphasis on the life story sparked by as well as embedded into objects in old age. Of the artists he engaged in the course of his work with Traditional Arts Indiana, he chose outstanding examples of artists who specifically created objects “to assist in the structuring and telling of life experiences” (6). To capture storytelling in and with objects, Kay recorded events in which arts are, in his words, “performed.” Kay hypothesizes that this action of speaking through objects is especially appropriate to advanced age even though it is not unique to it. Kay views their functions as helping individuals make sense of their lives, bond with others, forge a new identity in their later years, and comment on the “modern world around them” (6). If these social functions come through artists’ testimonies gathered in interviews, Kay more cautiously proposes psychological reasons for enacting folk arts of memory: responses to trauma or loss. Kay avoids use of the psychoanalyst’s “projection,” but clearly there are deeper implications of meanings and engagement of altered mental states in folk practices outside of the awareness of the individuals that he presents. The approach he takes is to examine different reasons for older adults taking up folk arts while interpreting the common thread of life review. Even if every older adult does not engage in crafts, there is the suggestion that an urge emerges during old age to find meaning in one’s life and communicate this to others, and satisfaction is gained (he views life-stories as a positive, therapeutic function rather than as it is sometimes presented, a sign of senescence) by those who turn to folk arts as a response. Thus, the choice of “aging” rather than “the aged” opens up the possibility of a longer range consideration of folklore as an adaptation to human development. As I also suggested in a special issue of Midwestern Folklore on folklore and aging (2015), the issue of aging can also frame a new pedagogy to introduce folklore as a dynamic, purposeful factor in people’s lives.

Kay offers a valuable contribution to folk art studies with the nicely composed profiles of four men and one woman who took up folk arts intensively later in life. Some craft-based arts will be recognizable in the annals of folklife studies, such as John Schoolman’s canes, Marian Sykes’s hooked rugs, and Milan Opacich’s tamburitza. These objects have an expressive feature or frame that brings them into the realm of life-story objects. The rugs are human genre scenes suggesting a family memory, rather than geometric, animal, or floral designs. Schoolman painted roots found in the woods in bright colors and inscribed on them personal, often poetic, messages. Opacich’s instruments have a classic look, but according to Kay, their connection to Opacich’s life experience comes out in their presentation amid home displays of memorabilia. Bob Taylor’s relief carvings in wood and Gustav Potthoff’s memory paintings might raise eyebrows about their inclusion as traditional arts, but Kay makes a case that these artists engage folk techniques and engage a process of communicating memory that can be considered in the analysis of folk art. And moving stories they have to tell, enhanced by these objects: Potthoff’s witnessing of death camps in the jungles of Burma (suggesting the ex voto paintings of deliverance from horrific events), and Taylor’s representation of collective community memory in his small town of Indiana. Kay’s own narrative wraps around the artists’ stories. He unfolds their work by framing them in his adventure as fieldworker, organizer, and curator for Traditional Arts Indiana. Even footnotes read like narrative asides rather than documentary sources. And like the artists he describes, his narrative arises out of enticing visuals. To the press’s credit, images are rendered in color, although the book’s size and packaging is not that of an art book.

Another contribution of Folk Art and Aging, even if a brief one, is to prompt us to think more about retirement in an American cultural context. This probably has received less attention in studies of culture because it appears bureaucratic rather than an organic tradition such as baptism, weddings, and funerals. In a section labeled “Retirement, Ritual, and Reflection” (110-12), Kay understands retirement as an “incomplete passage,” following Arnold van Gennep’s classic tripartite structure for life-stage rituals. Pointing out that retirement in American society lacks an incorporation, he offers that a cultural response has been the development of “private or personal rituals to mark the passage of time and reflect upon and assign meaning to aspects of their lives” (111). He finds that the elders featured in his book “have developed a ritual practice that has helped them to thrive in their retirement years” (111). This intersection of ritual studies and human development is well worth expanding, not only in studies of older adults but throughout the life course. Kay leaves us wanting more to read and see, but maybe that is the inspirational story he has to tell: in the last subheading of “meaningful connections,” he challenges retirees as well as culture workers to recognize the surging creative fountain, rather than dry dusty wellspring, of age.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.