Utah State University Library

Link to Utah State University Home Page.

Folklife & Folk Art Education Resource Guide


Teaching Students about Folk Objects and Traditional Arts

Folk Objects: Traditional Art Background Information

Folk objects, sometimes called folk art, are handmade, tangible objects people make and use in their folk groups. These objects range from quilts to rawhide reins, from canned peaches to Hawaiian leis. Folk objects, and the skills that folks use to create them, are often passed down from generation to generation through participation by people in folk groups. The activities surrounding the production of a folk object teach members of that folk group the group's customs, attitudes, aesthetics, and taboos. In a sense, a folk object transform the ideas, attitudes, and behaviors of a group into, as folklorist Steve Siproin states, a "concrete reality."

Folk objects are often beautiful solutions to our basic needs. It is often said that folk objects are "unnecessarily beautiful," meaning that their beauty is greater than the everyday function for which they were created, thus giving an indication of the objects' meaning and value to those who create and use them. Thus, even though a folk object (often referred to in families as an heirloom or family treasure) may have little monetary value it often contains a wealth of information, sentiment, and emotion for the folk group that created it. The story that explains the folk object's significance also makes it valuable. For example, the crazy quilt that your grandmother created is made more special to your family because of the stories that your grandmother tells about the patches stitched into the quilt: patches which tell a story of a loved family member.

By including discussions on folk objects in the classroom you draw upon your own and your students' folk traditions and sense of aesthetics, thus introducing multiculturalism and traditional art appreciation in a positive way. Through studying the creation of handmade objects we gain insights into the way people live and what is important to them. Exploring the handmade object traditions in Utah is especially interesting because of the many and varied backgrounds and cultures that are found in our state.

As well, by studying the creation of folk objects, many of which are traditional arts, (such as a Navajo Wedding basket, Japanese Temari balls, or a Mormon Temple quilt) you will have a unique opportunity to discuss with your students principles of design, symmetry, texture, shading, use of space, etc.,all requirements of the State Art Curricula.

Teaching Students about Folk Objects and Traditional Arts

PREPARATION: Bring several folk objects from home that have a significant meaning to you, such as a sunbonnet quilt your mother made for you, a whittled fan that your uncle made, moccasins your grandfather taught you to make, or foods like a cherry pie, baklava, or sushi that you make on special occasions for your family.

Review with your students the definitions of folk (people), folk groups (special groups people belong to, such as family, ethnic, region, age, religion, occupation) and folklore (the everyday expressions and traditions of a folk group that are passed on by word of mouth or by example from generation to generation).

Utilizing the background information on folk objects, lead a discussion with your students about folk objects. Explain to your students that folk objects are tangible handmade items that people create and share within their folk groups. Explain that although folk objects are often made by one person they reflect the style and attitude of the group. Remind your students of their paper art creations from yesterday. Explain to them that these items are folk objects because they were created out of the shared information of a group of people rather than the individual creation of their own. For instance, the information to create a paper airplane came from most likely a family or age folk group and although they folded and made the paper airplane, they did not create the idea of the plane, but rather connected to a long-standing tradition of school age children who create objects out of paper to exhibit their likes and abilities. The students may have modified the design, a technique most tradition bearers employ, but the object is still recognizable to the group, and therefore a representation of the group.

Discuss with your students the importance of folk processes. Explain that one of the things that makes folk objects so important to a folk group is the information that is passed on during the production of the item. The creation of a folk object teaches skills, ideas, beauty, color, and texture appreciation. Many folk objects are used in special or even sacred ceremonies, such as a handmade christening gown, a Navajo wedding basket, and a Hmong baby carrier.

Explain to your students that people who create folk objects the most beautifully and skillfully in a folk group are called folk artists. These artists express the traditions of their folk group through their art forms. (See resource materials on Utah traditions and traditions bearers.)

Share your folk objects with your class, telling them what folk group each item comes from and why the item is important to you.

Ask your class for examples of folk objects in some of the folk groups they belong to. List their answers on the board.

HOMEWORK: Have your students find a handmade object in their house and fill out the Folk Object Worksheet with the help of their parents. Tell the students that you would like them to bring the folk object to school tomorrow so they can share their folk objects with each other.

NOTE: You may want to discourage students from bringing items that are perishable, extremely delicate, expensive, or so valuable to the family that if they were lost, broken, or stolen they could not be replaced.

Go over the worksheet with your students and answer any questions they have about it or about folk objects.

Additional Activities

Survey: Create a traditional arts survey with your class. (See Folk Object Worksheet for ideas.) Then have your students conduct the survey in the school or the neighborhood. One exciting way to fulfill this activity is by inviting parents, grandparents,or known traditional artists in your community to visit your classroom. This alleviates concerns that might arise from students conducting interviewing in the neighborhood. It also helps to bring folks who don't normally come to school and provides opportunity to have a positive interaction with public education. By interviewing the tradition bearers, students learn about community history, artistic styles, and variation. The students also are exposed to interviewing and oral history techniques, which are both requirements of some grade state core curricula guidelines.

Tradition Bearer Visit: Invite a community tradition bearer to participate in your classroom to share with your class folk traditions: objects, words, customs. This works best when the visit is integrated into classroom learning activities. (See "Community Tradition Bearers in the Classroom.") The sky is the limit on the traditions and learning activities that can be explored.

Quilter: Invite a quilter to your classroom when you are discussing textiles, women's history, measurement, or even fractions. After the quilter's presentation on his/her quilting processes, have the quilter help the children make a classroom "crazy quilt" with pieces of fabric symbolic to each child represented. Pay special attention to measurements, color choices, stitching, the history and traditions the quilter uses to teach quilting.

Hmong Story Cloth artist: When discussing Utah settlement, invite a Hmong textile artist to discuss her "coming to Utah" story using a Hmong Story Cloth to make visible the Hmong exodus. As a follow up activity have your students create their own story cloth, using paper, crayons, glue, and other "recyleable" class materials. Their story cloth could portray their move from another country or state (or town).

Rawhide Braider or Saddlemaker: When talking about ranching in Utah, invite a rawhide braider or saddlemaker to school to discuss "cowboy gear." Invite the artist to show the children some techniques, explaining why it is important to create specialized gear and why the gear is so beautiful when it could function without the beautiful additions.

Hands-on Activity: Students could learn to braid rope or stamp a leather key chain for a hands-on activity.