Mention the term and most of us conjure images of hobos carving pieces of wood with dirty pocket knives as they rides the rails during the Great Depression.
Opening at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art on March 12, “No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art” seeks to shatter that stereotype through the display of more than 150 objects ranging from elaborate clocks to altars, dressers and satchels. The show marks the first large-scale exhibition of its kind since 1975. It concentrates on American works, with additional examples from France, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Mexico, Canada and Brazil. It includes the works of five artists carving today, including one from New Mexico.
The name “tramp art” is largely a misnomer, museum curator Laura Addison said.
Nobody knows for sure where the term originated.
“But the conventional wisdom is that it came from Germany and northern and eastern Europe and immigrants in the U.S.,” Addison said. “There’s a lot of tramp art in Wisconsin and Illinois and in Pennsylvania and upstate New York.”
The ultimate in recycling among working-class men, it flowered from the 1870s through the 1930s. All these artists needed was a cigar box and a pen knife to create sewing boxes, frames, devotional objects and whimsies.
In a way, it evolved as an unintended consequence of the cigar industry, Addison said.
“There was all this throw-away wood, usually mahogany and cedar,” she said. “It was nice wood, and it was thin. The thinness of the wood made it easy to notch around the edges.
“A lot of people associate tramp art with lack of skill,” Addison continued. “But a lot of it was very complex in design.”
The style also surfaced as the fruit of the late 19th and early 20th century work ethic. This industriousness resulted in items of visual complexity that brimmed with personality.
A 4-foot-tall early 20th century whimsy table by Henry Patrick Nugent combines three rectangular compartments with spindles and steps at the base.
“It is an odd duck,” Addison said. “It’s a piece of furniture. What purpose does it serve? I think it was an expression in creativity.
A meticulously carved clock is a tribute to both King George V and its Canadian origins. The king’s photograph tops the piece, framed by draped layers of the Union Jack. Maple leaves accent the sides, with carvings of animals native to the British Empire abutting each level.
Some pieces frame memorial portraits of fallen soldiers; others resemble New Mexican bultos with carved holy families. Rectangles carved with crosses and vines frame images of the Virgin Mary like New Mexican tinwork.
Other artists take tramp art well beyond the functional.
James Holmes carved his commissioned “Tramp Art Iron” using pine and walnut.
“I’m a sculptor,” Holmes said in a phone interview from his home south of Santa Fe. “I’ll use some elements of tramp art in my pieces. I’ve repaired a lot of it.”
Holmes’ iron carries echoes of dada and surrealist artist Man Ray’s nail-studded iron “The Gift,” with its blend of domesticity and sadomasochism.
“It just clicked,” he said. “It makes no sense whatsoever. There’s a lot of the Man Ray in there and (dadaist pioneer Marcel) Duchamp. “I do get a sense of humor into my work. ”