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Tramp Art

November 12, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

While many persons believe that nothing good comes from taxes, a now-obscure tax act may have contributed to the development of an American folk art form.

Among the provisions of the Tax Act of 1865 was one requiring cigars to be packaged in non-reusable wooden boxes. These, along with shipping crates, became popular raw materials for a form of woodworking called tramp art.

Clifford Wallach, author of a book titled "Tramp Art: One Notch at a Time," says in a September 2007 article for "Maine Antique Digest" magazine that a definition for tramp art is: "small pieces of wood, primarily discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, whittled into layers of geometric shapes having the outside edges of each layer notched or chip carved."

This simple art form flourished in the United States from the 1870s up to the 1940s. It was featured in a recent exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts called "Tramp Art: The Art of Folk Wood Carving."

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While it's relatively simple to define, tracing its origins and the people who created it is not so easy.

After folk art began to be collected as an art form in the early 20th century, collectors were "entranced with the vision of the wandering untrained artist applying his art," Wallach said.

"A newly discovered folk art form thought to be from hoboes making pieces in exchange for a room or a meal became the romantic definition for the tramp artist," he added.

But Wallach said his review of thousands of tramp art creations and interviews with descendants of many of the craftsmen he was able to identify presented a different picture.

"My research found all the dozens of makers identified as having had jobs and families," Wallach says. "... Although the term tramp art suggests a nomadic and nonsedentary tradition, tramp art is more related to quilting and other home-based crafts than to railroad boxcars and the open road."

Examination of many pieces of tramp art leads to the conclusion that most of the artists were self-taught, Wallach said. For example, a frame might display sophisticated carving in front, but the joints in back would be put together in a relatively crude manner.

There still is a lot of research to be done on the source of tramp art. While Germany seems to be responsible for more pieces of tramp art than any other foreign country, there hasn't been enough history published to determine if it's the source country, Wallach said. There's even a possibility American soldiers during World War I might have spread the craft from the United States, where it was commonplace, to parts of Europe.

"The fact that there are questions still to be answered and debated regarding tramp art is important in its development and acceptance as a form of folk art," Wallach says.

Two local collectors, Lewis Allen and Doug Bast, contributed some fine examples of tramp art to the Washington County exhibition. However, tramp art is not really the primary collecting interest of either man.

Allen, a retired printer from Silver Spring who now lives near Boonsboro, is a self-taught art collector who started to acquire art in his 30s. He actually arranged to work night shifts so he could look for art during the day. His chief interest is 19th century painting.

"The tramp art is really a sideline," he said. "I'd go to auctions, and some of the paintings weren't as good as advertised, or they might be reproductions. Often when you're at an auction, you'll see something going for a certain price and think it's worth more than that. So I've picked up enough tramp art to have a small collection, along with some toys and other collectibles."

Former Museum of Fine Arts Director Jean Woods, a friend, knew of Allen's collection and encouraged him to exhibit it, he said.

For now, tramp art is a relatively inexpensive example of what talented folk artists can create, Allen said. He credits books such as Wallach's for helping collectors learn more.

"Before that, none of us as collectors had the big picture," he said.

A member of the family that has operated the Bast of Boonsboro furniture store since the early 19th century, Doug Bast is also known for his private museum located next to the furniture store on Boonsboro's Main Street.

Tramp art is only a small part of the Bast collection, which includes Civil War and Boonsboro memorabilia, firearms, furnishings, ceramics, toys and much more.

One of Bast's favorite tramp artists is Frank Feather; he has 13 of Feather's creations.

"I find the personal story of Frank Feather to be as engaging as his artwork," Bast said.

Although he did not like to be known as a tramp, Feather actually fit the mythic definition of the tramp artists. Born in Jamestown, N.Y., in 1877, he was an itinerant who was well-known in many towns in northern Washington County and southern Franklin County, Pa. He often sold his work in exchange for food or lodging.

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