Artists on Art: Lisa D. Watson on the magic and business of folk art

I was a foreigner to steamy Georgia when my friend drove me a few hours to Rabbittown, Georgia from Atlanta. The perspiration was worth it as we approached a hill of awe-inspiring whirligigs.

It was 1994 and folk art was hot in the South. I was an outlander to the southern trend but soon appreciated its charm and especially the artist R. A. Miller (1912 – 2006).

My whirligig broke down in sunny California, but I still have the devils that made it spin. 


“Chicken Whirligig” by R.A. Miller


Twelve years passed until I found myself living in Georgia and looking for more of Miller’s work to add to my collection. I purchased a painted tin chicken of Miller’s that was 3 times as much as the whirligig. It’s worth it though.

Folk art took on a whole new persona for me after some searching. I explained this change to my best friend and fellow R. A. Miller collector in Los Angeles.

For example, a young woman with a Bachelor’s degree in fine art went to Mexico and spent 6 months painting angels. Now she is considered a folk artist and has a solo show in Asheville. I’m confused. I thought it was self-taught. I feel like traditional folk art has lost it’s nostalgia to today’s folk art branding for galleries and internet searches.”

My friend paused for a good 10 seconds and hollered, “That’s it. I’m calling myself Turnip, working on a southern accent and painting some reclaimed metal!”  

She could’ve made millions…or hundreds.


R.A. Miller


Today’s definition of a “folk artist” can be debated. The description of “not academic” certainly fails to describe the current wide range of folk art possibilities. In the 1800’s, untrained artisans were not thinking about museum or gallery showings; many were creating functional objects. Now, museums contain collections of living and deceased “folk” artists.

So, modern folk art is a difficult genre to pin down. Pop art portrays pop icons, Cubism comprises cubes and Surrealism is definitely surreal. But those can’t always be easily classified.  

With the multitude of online art searches, how do we even begin to distinguish all that’s out there and know who is authentic?


“CSX & Sobek” by Lisa D. Watson


Some artists do thrive on social media, but many really struggle to keep up with the internet madness. If producing art and submitting for gallery shows is not enough work, now artists have to post it, brand it, hashtag it and find press to spread the word–all in the hopes that a dealer will finally find them: a needle in the cyberspace haystack.

Therefore it’s wise for today’s self-acclaimed folk artists to brand themselves to appeal to a certain global audience. It’s better the artist cast themselves before someone does it for them, possibly not to their liking.

The art market is now a global highway and an artist needs to take the driver’s seat. That alone is a full time job.

It’s glamorous imagining an artist creating without categorization. Trust me, professional studio artists are happiest in their workrooms just sketching, painting, molding and sculpting.

First and foremost the artwork needs to be of high quality, timeless and distinctive. The process, which may take years, forms an interesting and authentic personal narrative. An artist begins to have a clear sense of oneself. The story molds the brand. Brand yourself now and leave the construing to the art historians after you’re, well, gone.

It’s not a hobby. Like you, artists need to get paid for their work while they’re alive!

Do you prefer online shopping? If so, here’s a tip: look for originality, vitality, ingenuity and believe in the eye of the beholder or viewer. Both folk and fine art are appraised the same: who made it, when, where and what is the condition? The condition may be questionable online.

I prefer bona fide moments with artisans like I had with Mr. Miller.


Roots Up Gallery (6 E. Liberty St.)


Instead of buying a $200 piece of mass-produced, made-in-China “art” from Home Goods, why not be patient and find original pieces by local artists? Most will welcome you to their studios; how cool is that?

If you’re in Savannah and want a mix of both “non-traditional” local works and authentic folk pieces, try Roots Up Gallery, owned by Leslie Lovell and Francis Allen. They have a great eye for artists who express fanciful imagery and unconventional perspectives. You’ll also find some of the classics like Clementine Hunter, Jimmy Lee Sudduth and my old buddy R. A. Miller. You may even run into some of the local artists during the Second Saturday Art Walk.

“Our goal is to share a different style of art that is both approachable and affordable. It is also wonderful to share the many stories behind the creation of each piece,” says Leslie Lovell.


Artwork at Roots Up Gallery


Another good art buying market is Sulfur Studios. I’ve been purchasing gifts items and original pieces of art from Sulfur Studios during the First Friday Art March. Meet the artisan and see their smile when you hand them money!

Going back to that hot summer day, sitting on a concrete step with Mr. Miller, I recall something he said to me: “I’m okay if you’re one of those fancy city folk dealers and gonna sell my stuff for more than it’s worth.”

I assured him that I was an artist who appreciates hard work, dumpster dives for materials and loves his artwork.
I’m not selling my new gems, Mr. Miller.


Lisa D. Watson is a local artist, designer and activist. We reported on her most recent project, Span the Gap, here. You can see more of Lisa’s artwork here.

Lisa D. Watson

Author: Lisa D. Watson

Lisa D. Watson starts her day with a delicious cup of coffee ground from the bones of litterbugs and animal abusers. She is an upcycling mixed media artist, muralist, home decorator, garden designer and now needs a second cup of coffee.

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  1. nice article, but when you visited RA you were in Georgia not Alabama.

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  2. Meant to change Alabama to Georgia; not even sure why I wrote Alabama….

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