Friday, September 08, 2006

Tramp Art

In an earlier post, I outlined the difference between a "hobo" and a "tramp". Hoboes traveled around the country to find transient work, while tramps considered hoboes "suckers" for working at all. Tramps had their own hierarchy, with the "profesh" at the top (a professional tramp, who was known for his fastidousness of appearance), and the more typical "fakir" (who had repairman or trade skills to employ when needed). Tramps did whatever they could to survive. They engaged in thievery and begging, and more rarely in robbery and murder. Sometimes they resorted to hobo status in order to build a "stake" to live off of for a short time.

This is not to say that tramps never gave anything back to the society in which they lived (or more properly- lived outside of). In the "jungles" (campsites) where they lived, they often used a technique called "chip carving" to craft a variety of objects including doll furniture, picture frames, jewelry boxes, and even full-sized chests of drawers. Chip-carving entailed using knives to make triangular-shaped cuts to form intriguing and intricate designs. Tramps used cigar boxes and packing crates to produce these items, and traded them for food, lodging and other necessities on the road. The finished pieces are known today under the classification "tramp art".

This folk art had its heyday between the 1870's and 1940's. Ironically, it only drew notice in the realm of culture during the 1950's when its period of production had largely passed. Nowadays, in the postmodern era of cultural consumerism, tramp art has become a highly collectible commodity. Of course, there are galleries devoted to this traditional folk-style Americana. What confounds collectors of such work is that most of it was left unsigned and undated. Good luck doing an internet search for the names of "famous tramp artists"- it's very difficult to find specific names. Bill Carmichael (information on this author provided at bottom of post) mentions Big Boy Billy, Frisco Fred (who gets a mention here), and Lanky Larry.

When most talk about "tramp art" today, they are likely referring specifically to the chip-carved pieces linked to above. But indeed there is a whole range of craft that is associated with both tramps AND hoboes (furthering the confusion of classification). Check out this confusingly- titled link. Evidently some make a distinction between hobo art and tramp art, saying that the latter is more utilitarian in nature, while the former used whittling to create objects that were more whimsical.

(By the way, I particularly like this vintage religious tramp art.)


** I became aware of this fascinating type of artisans' craft when I came across a chapter devoted to its collectors in a (1971) book by Bill Carmichael called "Incredible Collectors, Weird Antiques and Odd Hobbies". Carmichael seemed to be well ahead of the curve in recognizing the validity and future colllectibility of tramp art. But it's inclusion in this book of "strange collections" is illustrative of just how under-the-radar the artform was until recently.

2 Comments:

Blogger John Morris said...

Wow, i don't know too much about this. It seems to fit the pattern of a lot of prisoner and also sailor art. The extreeme level of detail and personal devotion in this type of work is unreal. The type of work that often most moving to me are the obsesive works of prisoners, which are often filled with insane levels of feeling and devotion.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

There's definitely a connection. Carmichael rhetorically asks where the tradition of tramp art has led. He wrote his book in the 70's, and mentions that, at the time, there were half a dozen inmates he was aware of working in the style. He mentions the Maine State Prison as a "typical outlet for this genre of folk art", and says collectors travel from out of state to see the latest work.

12:08 PM  

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