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A Legacy of Tramp Art
by Clifford A. Wallach



This book presents over 600 historical images and introduces newly discovered artists of tramp art. Made from society’s discards, primarily wooden cigar boxes and wooden crates, tramp art is the story of the common man, unschooled in the arts, taking a simple tool to carve a legacy from the heart for all to enjoy and celebrate.
                                   
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The Art of Everyman
by Bob Brooke

 

Tramp Art was an art movement found throughout the world in which mostly men whittled small pieces of wood, primarily from discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, into layers of geometric shapes having the outside edges of each layer notch carved. It was popular from the 1870s to the 1940s when the art form began to decline.

These primitive artists used simple tools such as a pocketknife to carve the wood and assemble mostly utilitarian objects. Though tramp art pieces were abundant throughout the world, the movement prospered in the United States. The most common forms were the box and the frame and although there were no rules or patterns to lend commonality in the artists’ work there were objects made in every conceivable shape and size including jewelry boxes, sewing caddies, full sized furniture, and objects of whimsy.

Tramp Art was a democratic art form since artists constructed their pieces from found raw materials. In the U.S. alone there were over 50 different ethnic groups who made it. It appealed to men who might have made one piece in their lifetime or to those who might have made an important body of work such as ‘Sunflower’ artist John Martin Zubersky, active from 1912 to 1920, or the wonderfully expressive wall pockets by John Zadzora, active around 1910. It was easy to make and appealed to anyone who had a desire to take a pocketknife to wood.

Countless men, some women, and even children constructed tramp art. Tramp art at home, but factory workers, farmers, and others in every conceivable occupation also created it. Although there were tramps or hoboes who made pieces, they weren’t the primary group as the name suggests. Francis Lichten invented the name tramp art in Pennsylvania Folk Life Magazine in 1959, but it had nothing to do with the art form.

The stories of this art form became the facts while the misconceptions became the truths. There were no rules for constructing the pieces. Materials were whatever the carver could find. Decorations were whatever he could produce or had available. Within the context of his own imagination, experience, and abilities, the carver assimilated what he saw with what he had to work with. He then translated and created what he saw into works of art by using his pocketknife and the ever-present cigar box.

Tramp Art can be compared to quilts. People constructed both from salvaged materials, cut into patterns of primarily geometric shapes pieced together, and layered to create utilitarian objects. Both traditions could be done in the company of others with the “how-to” passed on orally.

Unfortunately, historians know little of tramp art’s history since there were few references to it as an art form. Most of the early perceptions came about because early scholars were at a loss to explain this unique art form. Early folk art experts believed that the poor, displaced and unschooled artisan made most of the pure folk art,. Even today the study of folk art celebrates the romantic myth of the folk artisan on the outside of convention and on the outside of society.

Since the 1960s, folk art experts have discovered hundreds of men, some women, and even children who made tramp art. And it was one of the first artistic movements to use discarded materials to make objects of art as well as utilitarian objects for everyday use.

There’s a great deal of proof that tramp art wasn’t made by tramps exclusively as the name suggests. There are only a couple of documented makers out of the hundreds who were truly itinerant. Based on the artists’ background or profession, the movement could more likely be called Farmer’s Art or Baker’s Art, or any other occupation practiced during tramp art’s years of production. All would be far more authentic than the term tramp art. It was the art of “everyman.” It appealed to anyone who had the desire to take discarded materials to make art. The mostly unschooled makers created it in their homes far from the art schools or workshops of high art.

No one really knows where tramp art originated. It seemed to appear everywhere at the same time. There are few tramp art objects that show evidence of woodworking ability. It does not seem probable that professional woodworkers had any influence or spread the art form.

The technique of chip carving consisted of notching and layering, with each succeeding layer being a little smaller than the preceding one, to create a pyramidal design. One cigar box or many cigar boxes could be used for the frame of the piece as well as performing the decorative function. Either way, the carver had to have a great deal of time and patience to create his finished product. He had to notch-carve each individual piece of wood many times. Then he had to layer the individual notch-carved pieces of wood into some kind of recognizable object. And then he had to decide if he wanted to add further decorations to the piece. One of the most fascinating characteristics of tramp art is the desire of the carver to produce detailed and often very skilled work with only make-do and simple tools. He layered piece upon piece for strictly decorative purposes, because he felt that many layers of wood were more interesting looking than just one.

In addition to chip carving and layering, applied and inlaid decorations were another common technique used in Tramp Art. Since geometric patterns of circles, squares, and triangles were the easiest to carve, they were the most common type of applied and inlaid decoration. Hearts and stars were the most-used symbols for such decorations, and sometimes the entire object would be made into a heart shape.

Another type of tramp art wasn’t quite as popular as the traditional layering and chip carving. This is often referred to as the "crown of thorns." Artists made pieces in a layering pieces of cigar-box wood. They notched the pieces of wood together in an interlocking and overlapping fashion as logs overlap in building a log cabin. As they interlocked the pieces, they also layered them and built them up like vertebrae to form a star effect.

Tramp art became a very popular art form because it allowed the artists to use the materials they had at hand to produce a great variety of objects. He created picture frames, gift and jewelry boxes, and full-size chests of drawers not only to fill his empty hours, but so that he could use them as gifts for friends, barter for food, or in exchange for money.

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