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posted: 3/16/2014 5:45 AM

Folk art. Just what is it, anyway?

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  • Print by Chris Noah-Cooper, a third-generation artist influenced by 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch art.

      Print by Chris Noah-Cooper, a third-generation artist influenced by 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch art.

  • Natasha Lehrer crafts a tiny decorative acorns from sheep's wool and other fibers.

      Natasha Lehrer crafts a tiny decorative acorns from sheep's wool and other fibers.

  • This pub table was made by Rodney Dorrance, a third generation carpenter and woodworker who uses reclaimed barn wood to make furniture.

      This pub table was made by Rodney Dorrance, a third generation carpenter and woodworker who uses reclaimed barn wood to make furniture.

  • Shweit's photographs are found in "Wisconsin Barns" Farcountry Press.

      Shweit's photographs are found in "Wisconsin Barns" Farcountry Press.

  • This "bottle tree" was made by Metal sculptor Dave Anders.

      This "bottle tree" was made by Metal sculptor Dave Anders.

  • Robin Reed, owner of Art of the Heartland Inc., produces several Fox Valley area shows.

      Robin Reed, owner of Art of the Heartland Inc., produces several Fox Valley area shows.

  • Rodney Dorrance, a third generation carpenter and woodworker, uses reclaimed wood from barns to make his furniture.

      Rodney Dorrance, a third generation carpenter and woodworker, uses reclaimed wood from barns to make his furniture.

  • Metal sculptor Dave Anders, who made this "Spoon Crab,"  makes his Chicago area debut at the Spring Country Folk Art Festival.

      Metal sculptor Dave Anders, who made this "Spoon Crab," makes his Chicago area debut at the Spring Country Folk Art Festival.

  • Metal sculptor Dave Anders began began decorative garden metalwork in 1994. He owns the Colonial Wagon and Wheel Co. shop in Lebanon, Ohio.

      Metal sculptor Dave Anders began began decorative garden metalwork in 1994. He owns the Colonial Wagon and Wheel Co. shop in Lebanon, Ohio.

  • Photographer and author Ernest Schweit is always on the hunt for the American barn. He will sign his book "Wisconsin Barns" during the show.

      Photographer and author Ernest Schweit is always on the hunt for the American barn. He will sign his book "Wisconsin Barns" during the show.

  • Natasha Lehrer's family raises Cheviot sheep that produce much of the fiber she uses in her artwork.

      Natasha Lehrer's family raises Cheviot sheep that produce much of the fiber she uses in her artwork.

 
By Patricia Gerlach
Special to the Daily Herald

Just what is folk art? The subject has been debated in America for decades.

Ask five people for a definition and you'll get that many distinctive responses. Maybe more.

"Creating beauty on paper and wood'' -- printmaker Chris Noah-Cooper.

"Making do with whatever you have to make people smile'' -- metal sculptor Dave Anders.

"Spinning, felting, hand blending and dyeing wool for practical and decorative items'' -- fiber artist Natasha Lehrer.

"Reclaiming barn wood to fashion custom furnishings for today's homes'' -- furniture crafter Rodney Dorrance.

"Capturing a vanishing icon -- the American barn -- to preserve the beauty of these majestic wooden temples'' -- photographer and author Ernest J. Schweit.

Meet these artisans and many more of America's top-rated creative personalities who show and sell their work at the Spring Country Folk Art Festival March 21, 22 and 23 at Kane County Fairgrounds. The strictly juried show has been long considered one of the country's finest markets of its type. The event offers something for everyone and every budget.

Unlike most conventional art, folk art has an earthy appeal not found in high-end urban galleries.

"It's often a reflection of America's past history,'' says Robin Reed, owner and founder of Art of the Heartland Inc., family-owned producers of several prestigious Fox Valley area shows that include West Dundee's Heritage Fest Art and Crafts and Antique shows, Autumn on the Fox and Christmas on the Fox.

Reed balances recruiting top artists such as Chris Noah-Cooper with advocating the preservation and continuation of folk art worldwide.

Third generation artist Noah-Cooper began "playing'' with art at age 5 when she used a crayon to gussy up her mother's dough board with stick horses. Her grandmother, Ruth Brandon Peterson of California's Napa Valley, designed the original Christian Brother Wine label. Her mother, Winnie Noah, wrote five decorative painting books. Noah-Cooper has a degree in printmaking and painting from Trinity University in San Antonio.

Despite her California roots, she is inextricably tied to 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch art. "I like to produce art that pleases the eye and the soul,'' says Noah-Cooper, who has worked from her Miamisburg, Ohio, studio for the past 22 years. Her current passion is producing limited edition prints called taufscheins -- embellished birth and baptismal certificates that take her a full day to complete.

Metal sculptor Dave Anders makes his Chicago area debut at this spring show even though his Colonial Wagon and Wheel Co.'s Lebanon, Ohio, shop is operating on a seasonal schedule of 18 hour days to produce the whimsical metal garden items for which it is known.

Anders began decorative garden metalwork in 1994 when he realized some of the wagons, wheelbarrows and other funky outdoor ornaments that filled his parents' front yard generated income up to $1,000 some weekends. He had taken a few metalworking shop classes in high school, then spent 14 years in the Marine Corps and returned home to experience difficulty landing a job.

"I learned that the yard stuff made people smile -- it was fun. And when people have fun, they are willing to spend money,'' says Anders, who early on recognized the items as folk art -- utilitarian yet often humorous items. Trellises, flower pots, bottle trees, garden decorations, fishing rods -- pieces that served a purpose and lifted spirits, producing a chuckle or two.

"My grandfather grew up in West Virginia and believed in making do with whatever one had. To me, that's folk art,'' says Anders. Today, Anders specializes in using what he calls "mild'' cold and hot, rolled steel to produce specialty items for some garden centers, although custom crafting is his forte.

Like Anders, Natasha Lehrer loves the outdoors. Eight years ago, armed with a small flock of sheep and a spinning wheel, 19-year old Lehrer set an enterprise in motion that has become a vibrant community resource in the sweet rural town of Big Rock, an hour west of Chicago.

With assistance from her parents and others, Lehrer wrote grants, delved into learning everything she could about fiber arts, then helped restore a Victorian building to open and furnish Esther's Place Fiber Arts Studio. It's a haven for folks who want to engage in fiber art in a unique manner -- a spot where customers stop by to show off their projects, ask advice, register for classes and stay for a cup of tea or a chat.

The Cheviot sheep that produce much of the fiber the studio offers live at the Lehrers' nearby Lamb of God farm.

In a "make and take experience'' at her Country Folk Art Festival booth, Lehrer shows visitors how to use strands of her beautiful fiber to craft, for themselves, a tiny decorative acorn. Then she requests they make a second acorn to submit to an upcoming international art exhibit in the United Kingdom, part of Prince Charles' Campaign for Wool Program.

"Our main goal at Esther's Place is to provide a country setting of encouragement and inspiration, to tell stories of shepherding,'' Lehrer says. "I enjoy working to raise awareness of fiber as an art. My passion is to cultivate the spirit and skills of budding artists.'' She is often assisted by her mom, Donna.

About that passion for art, consider Rodney Dorrance, a third generation carpenter and woodworker. When he was about 16, a friend encouraged him to at least think about using barn wood for some of the furniture he was interested in building. Young Dorrance was hooked.

"I've done construction, furniture, hardwood flooring and remodeling but making furniture is a passion that has turned into a business,'' says Dorrance of Lily Lake, near St. Charles. "By using barn wood that I have torn down and reclaimed myself, I have created one-of-a-kind custom pieces.''

And Dorrance finds the search for good reclaimed barn wood is almost as much fun -- sometimes -- as building a great piece to fulfill a customer's need.

Like Dorrance, Ernest Schweit is always on the hunt for the American barn. "They are majestic wooden temples on the prairie that played an important part in the growth of America and feeding the world,'' says the Wheeling-based photographer and author. A former newspaper editor and writer for more than 30 years, Schweit's passion for photography is lifelong.

Born in the city and raised in the suburbs, Schweit became enamored with Illinois' rural landscape during long train rides between his Chicago home and college campuses in downstate Lincoln and Carbondale. That love affair continues as he uses camera and lens to capture those "vanishing icons.''

"For a number of reasons, these historic structures are vanishing,'' he says. He believes they must be preserved -- not only as structures, but as historic objects of art.

A two-year project, (he calls it a journey down the back roads of Wisconsin) culminated in the spring of 2009 with the publication of a book of Shweit's photographs, "Wisconsin Barns" ($14.95 by Farcountry Press). He will sign copies of the book at the Country Folk Art Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

And he has created a touring collection of 20 original, signed prints from the book, each custom framed in reclaimed tamarack from an old barn in southern Wisconsin. He lectures on Wisconsin barns and teaches photography at Harper College.

These artistic personalities represent the tip of the iceberg at the folk art festival. Come and meet many more talented artisans whose work represents a wide variety of folk art including handmade quilts, country furniture, baskets, antiques, handcrafted soaps, painted decorations, chalkware, papier mache, needle embroidery and more engaging surprises.

The Spring Country Folk Art Festival offers something for everyone.

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