Primitive Folk Art Dolls: What Are They?

Primitive Folk Art Dolls: What Are They?

By Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, CC BY-SA 3.0
By Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, CC BY-SA 3.0

You may have heard people talk about primitive folk art dolls and wondered, “What exactly makes a doll a folk art doll?” How are they unique and different from other dolls? What are they made of? What do they look like?  Well, primitive folk art dolls are quite a unique art genre that is growing in popularity. So let’s talk about it.

A Brief Folk Art History

First I would like to share with you about folk art and its origins. Then I will apply it specifically to dolls, hence, folk art dolls. Folk art is basically visual art made without the use of modern equipment. It is art that retains an element of a common people group of a prolonged tradition. It is the “art of the people” as opposed to the elite. It is common folks creating from what they had available to them. This art is often primitive in style. Throughout the ages, peasants and common laborers struggled to exist in the midst of hardships. This art was an expression of their struggles. This expression often contained the community values of the people using common materials as wood, cloth, clay, metal, etc.

Tribal Art

hand-made-Belizean- culture-doll
hand-made Belizean culture doll

Folk art can be even further narrowed into something even more people-specific called tribal art. This art form is specifically art originating from tribal groups. Think of indigenous people, the people considered the “first” people in an area. They developed their own art, and it was often associated with some sort of religion. Think of the Native American tribes and their art, or perhaps the art of tribal African countries. These are just a couple of examples. Regardless of the culture, the art of any people seems ubiquitous throughout. It is a humble expression of the human struggle.

The Dolls of Folk Art

folk-art-dollNow let’s apply this history and a brief definition of folk art to the dolls of this art form. There are so many kinds of dolls. So, what makes it a folk art doll? Now that you know a bit about folk art, you can probably apply what I have described specifically to dolls. These dolls were nothing fancy. I say “were” speaking historically; however, many of these dolls are still being made today by indigenous people (and by people who have an interest in them, have picked up the skill, and are now creating them).

These dolls are not fancy. They were not created by trained professionals. Some may even call them crude; but there is a beauty about their primitive raw appearance. They can represent the humility of the peasants and common folks who historically made them. These peasants made them from whatever materials could be salvaged and recycled. Some are carved of wood. Others are cloth or clay. Their crudeness has a whimsical charm. Folk art is encapsulated in these dolls. The spirit of hardness is manifested. They truly are a far cry from the elegant refined appearance of the French porcelain doll, for example.

A Few Primitive Dolls

Native American Dolls

I used to live near an Indian reservation (Native American) and visited the museum there. Folk art seemed to be everywhere in that museum!  Among the artifacts were primitive Native American dolls–made who knows when– that captured my attention. They were quite simple in construction. Some were made from cloth and beads. Others were made from wood, twigs, or even dried gourds. They also used human hair or horse hair in their construction. Quite indigenous, primitive, rustic, but beautiful.

African American Dolls

Another type of doll is the African American folk doll. These are quite whimsical and captivating to behold. They are also simple in design and capture the spirit of a struggling people; yet, they seem to have a bit of joy expressed, though not all of them do. I appreciate them much and have a mind to make some one day. I am intrigued by them as well as the African tribal dolls.

Corn Cob and Corn Husk Dolls

corncob-dollHave you ever seen one of those corn cob dolls? I would consider them folk art too. The early pioneers of the United States made them. How simple too! They didn’t have much. They struggled to make ends meat. They grew corn. They had a lot of corn cobs as a result; and although corn cobs do make great fire starter, they were the base for the construction of dolls for children. There was no money for frivolities. They had to make most everything they had. They can easily be made by wrapping cloth and yarn around a corn cob. The Pioneers also made corn husk dolls. They simply used the husks of the corn as opposed to the cob. They might not even have any eyes–such as is always the case with the Amish dolls (which I also put in the genre of primitive or folk art doll); for they truly are primitive and made by a people group of a particular culture from scavenged materials.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the variety of folk art dolls that exist, but these are just a few that come to mind that can be easily recognized.

That’s All Folks! (and Dolls)

So the next time you hear someone mention folk art or primitive folk art dolls, perhaps you will now be able to understand what they are, identify them, or interject a bit of something about them to those you meet. I hope you can take away something of value here and develop an appreciation for all kinds of art. There are many histories and cultures we can learn from that help broaden our perspective of the world. A key to remember about folk art dolls is the word folk. It is the common folks that make these dolls; and, when you really stop to think about it, we are all just folks, traveling through this world. Each one of us has something to offer, and each one of us has something to learn from all those other “folks.”





12 thoughts on “Primitive Folk Art Dolls: What Are They?

  1. I found your article very informative. I didn’t know what these dolls were, but I love the history surrounding them. Thank you for this wonderful article.

  2. This is very interesting, I had no idea of the background of these dolls. Maybe it is because we were terrified of them as kids haha so i never bothered to know anything about them.
    This has widened my knowledge on these dolls. Thank you

  3. Very interesting!
    My mother actually collecting porcelain dolls and once told me that they used to make stuffed dolls back in the days, I never imagined it was so popular.
    I also like that it’s being done without using modern equipment and the fact that you can bring yourself into making one.

    1. So glad you enjoyed this article about folk art dolls. Yes, doing things the old way seems to be a dying art, but there are people trying to bring it back. Most modern equipment is not necessary. It is handy, but not imperative. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I lived in Alaska for 22 years, and the Native American dolls are quite beautiful. The natives there make them as a living, and they are intricate and beautiful. I wouldn’t necessarily consider them a “doll”, more like a item for display.

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