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No Idle Hands

The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art

Long before the word recycle came into popular use, talented, anonymous craftsmen made objects of art with found wood, old cigar boxes, and discarded crates. These often intricately carved items have long been known as “tramp art.” For many years, tramp art was believed to have been made by itinerants and hobos, hence the name.

Tramp art describes a particular type of chip-carved woodwork that was practiced in Europe and the United States between the 1870s and 1940s, making use of discarded cigar boxes or crates that were then notch-carved along the edges and layered. Objects made were primarily boxes and frames, but other household objects such as small private altars, crosses, medicine cabinets, wall pockets, clock cases, plant stands, and even furniture can be found.

Ongoing through September 16, 2018, the Museum of International Folk Art (MoIFA) presents No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art, the first large-scale museum exhibition dedicated to tramp art since 1975. No Idle Hands presents more than 150 examples of tramp art, concentrating on works from the United States, with additional examples from France, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil to demonstrate how far this practice spread. The exhibition analyzes and dismantles myths and misperceptions about tramp art, particularly about the class, quality, and anonymity of the makers.

“The ingenious objects in the Tramp Art exhibition use recycled or repurposed wood, and highlight a moment in time a century ago when artisans, many of them immigrants to the U.S., created a new variety of folk art,” says Khristaan D. Villela, director of MoIFA. “These items are a testament to the ability of untrained artists to produce objects of immense beauty and complexity.”

By juxtaposing historic pieces with those by contemporary artists working in the tramp art style, the exhibition frames this art form as an ongoing tradition that continues to capture the public’s imagination — myths and all.

The Museum of International Folk Art is open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (through October). Admission $7 Adults/Seniors (60+) NM residents, $12 non-resident Adults/Seniors, $6 NM students with ID, $11 non-resident students, Children 16 & under Free. First Sunday of the month is free for NM residents with ID. Every Wednesday free for NM Seniors (60+ with ID).

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