Tramp Art’s Mysterious Origins and Exquisite Crafts

A massive survey of tramp art at the Museum of International Folk Art delves into the unexplored history of astonishingly elaborate creations.

No Idle Hands, installation view at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — To the uninitiated, the phrase “tramp art” probably evokes a stereotypical hobo, train hopping with a cartoonish bindle or drinking moonshine around a fire pit. This was even the case for Laura Addison, curator of North American & European Folk Art at New Mexico’s famed Museum of International Folk Art, who organized No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art, a massive survey of work within this genre.

“It was a learning occasion for me, because I had the idea that it was made by tramps,” said Addison, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “But more and more, it appears that’s not the case.”

“[Tramp art] was made by family men with settled home lives,” writes Addison in an article for the spring 2017 issue of El Palacio. “Signed tramp art pieces and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that is was a working class pursuit characterized by pragmatism and thrift.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine someone with an itinerant lifestyle having any need for the decorative boxes, picture frames, furniture, and devotional objects, decorated with repetitious and painstaking care that are characteristic of tramp art.

Tramp art jewelry boxes, clocks, and decorative object

Tramp artists, working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, repurposed discarded wood to make elaborately detailed domestic objects. But there’s a lot that remains unknown about tramp art, including many of the individual practitioners of mostly unsigned works that have been handed down through a couple of generations, or even its specific country of origin.

“In my theorizing, I tend to lean toward a European origin,” said Addison, during the interview, “There are a number of examples in the show from France, and from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, but I do think tramp art has its own story in the United States.”

Tramp art sewing boxes and wall hangings
A heavily decorated tramp art chest

This story is intimately connected with the tobacco industry and the proliferation of wooden cigar boxes — the delicate milled wood of which was layered and notched, sometimes combined with bigger pieces from discarded food crates. Essentially, tramp art is comprised of only one or two simple hand-carving techniques, replicated and layered in such numbers as to form astonishingly elaborate creations. Tramp art might be considered working-class Victoriana, which parlayed the period’s affinity for intensive (and, one might argue, excessive) decoration on even the most quotidian of objects. Tramp artists wasted not even the smallest of scraps, and some pieces even repurposed and framed the existing elements of the cigar box, such as landscape scenes on printed labels, as an additional decorative feature.

A tramp art shrine

The tireless acts of stacking, notching, and varnishing these thin wooden layers into hope chests and encrusted jewelry boxes might be considered a devotional practice. Tramp art was at its peak from the 1870s to the 1930s, and socially it coincided with a particular moral bent that considered idleness as the devil’s playground. To be still, even in one’s after-supper hours before bed, would be to invite ruination, and so the practice of domestic crafts — typically knitting or embroidery for women, and light woodwork like whittling for men — was an act of resistance to the temptations of evil. It is natural, then, that artifacts of worship are another favorite of tramp art, and the exhibition presents numerous altar boxes, crosses, candlesticks, and framed icons that reinforce the associated between tramp art and regular churchgoing members of the community.

No Idle Hands is also a demonstration of tramp art’s astounding virtuosity. Some whittled works demonstrate incredible precision in carving, such as in long loops of wooden chain-link, where the interlocked forms are carved out of whole pieces (rather than pieced together, as metal chain-link would be). Clever tramp artists were able to carve astonishing ball-in-joint mechanisms or ball-captures from single wood blocks, creating kinetic pieces out of a once solid base material. These chains seem to serve no earthly purpose, but for a kind of quiet bragging by the practitioners of this humble craft.

Hand-carved wooden chain link and ball-captures in a tramp art frame

Tramp art waned in the US as cigars lost market share to cigarettes, and cigar boxes that formed the base materials became less readily available. It has taken some time for the form to be officially recognized as folk art, owing perhaps to its lack of direct connection to a single ethnographic group or center. But tramp art might more rightly be seen as a folk art borne of class, rather than race, and in that sense underscores the commonality of experience based on one’s relationship to a hard day’s work.

No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art continues at Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo, On Museum Hill, Santa Fe) through September 16.

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