Southern Arizona Folk Arts
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El Arte Folklórico del Sur de Arizona en espagñol


Welcome to Southern Arizona Folk Arts. The content for this website was contributed by Dr. James S. Griffith, founder of the Tucson Meet Yourself Festival, and retired folklore professor and director of the University of Arizona's Southwest Center. The images presented in this website are from Dr. Griffith's slide collection and were shot over the previous three to four decades. Southern Arizona Folks Arts was originally compiled in March 1995 and represents one of the earliest websites in the Through Our Parents' Eyes: History & Culture of Southern Arizona project. Follow the links at the bottom of each page to navigate through the site. For more information on Dr. Griffith, visit the Music of the Southwest website.

Visitors interested in this subject should also visit a companion website La Cadena Que No Se Corta: The Unbroken Chain -- The Traditional Arts of Tucson's Mexican American Community

Introduction to Southern Arizona Folk Arts

Any discussion of folk art must begin with a definition of those two rather hazy words, "folk" and "art." Art historians and collectors, artists and art critics, folklorists and anthropologists may define and use the two words quite differently, and it is only fair to say right at the start that this photoessay was compiled according to the approaches most commonly used by American folklorists. "Art" in the sense it is used here refers not to a class of object, but rather to that aspect of any object that goes beyond the strictly utilitarian, and which is intended to give pleasure to maker, viewer, or both. "Folk" refers to the object having been made by members of a specific cultural subgroup of the greater society, either for their own use or for "export" beyond their community to the society at large.

Mexican pastries and cookies from the Del Rio
Mexican pastries and cookies from the Del Rio
Bakery, Tucson, Arizona, November 1981
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

The folk arts, as defined this way, are created within smaller communities and, in one way or another, serve the purposes of those communities. They tend to be conservative; that is, their tradition exerts a strong pull on the artists, who tend to create within certain well-understood boundaries. Folk arts tend to reflect the specific aesthetic standards of the community within which they are created. Finally, folk artists learn their skills within their communities, by means that are sanctioned by that particular community for the learning of that particular art form. Thus western saddle makers and Mexican bakers learn through formal or informal apprenticeship, while quilters and Ukrainian Easter egg makers usually learn by working with and observing older relatives.

Two important concepts for the understanding of folk art are "community" and "tradition." There are many exciting, untrained, highly individualistic artists all over the United States, but they are not folk artists in the sense I am using the term. A folk artist's work, rather than saying "look at me," states "this is who I am." Tradition is just as important as community. To be traditional does not mean to remain unchanged; rather, it means that folk art has a kind of depth in time. Piñatas in the shape of Bart Simpson are perfectly traditional; piñatas have been reflecting contemporary life since their earliest documentation in the 1890s. Likewise, low rider cars may be using contemporary materials, but they are assembled according to a baroque aesthetic that has been in place in Mexican culture since the 18th Century.

Definitions such as this strive to understand the objects on something approaching the cultural terms under which they are (or were) created. True, some forms of folk art are appealing to collectors and museums, but this appeal does not often enter into the minds of the artists. It is fascinating to watch how the cultural functions and the meanings of such objects as cascarónes change as the objects themselves move across cultural boundaries.

James S. Griffith, March 1995

Southern Arizona Folk Arts Sections

Quilts | Easter Eggs, Paper Cuttings, and Woodworking from Europe | An Occupation and a Region: Cowboy and Western Folk Art | Chicano Murals in Tucson| Low Riders -- A Contemporary Folk Art Form | Mexican American Paperwork | Mexican Food in Tucson | Rights & Permissions | Home