Whimsical Tramp Art pieces can be found throughout Old Town - and has inspired a number of local contemporary artists. But what in the heck is it?
- story and photos by Grace King
Hobo Art, or Tramp Art, is a term referring to art made of found objects - mainly wood, toothpicks, discarded cigar boxes, crates or pallets - and often whittled into layers featuring geometric shapes.
This art form has been traced back to the 1870s and began to die out in the 1940s.
Magnolia Antiques often carries carved knives called Trench Art, a similar art form that refers to decorative items made by soldiers, prisoners of war or civilians affected by wartime who were often literally stuck in the trenches and needed a project to take their mind off their conditions. Of course, they had to work with the materials they had at hand - toothpicks, pieces of scrap wood, wire, popsicle sticks, etc.
I’d seen these rustic forms of art, especially in the Delta, but never knew about Tramp Art.
The South has a long history of self-taught artists, many using discarded materials. Museum sensations like Thornton Dial have made being an “outsider artist” more mainstream.
His paintings and assemblages fashioned from scavenged materials hung proudly in the New Orleans Museum of Art during a popular exhibition in 2012 called “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.”
Patrons were so moved by his show that the museum now houses 10 pieces of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in its permanent collection. His extraordinary body of work continues to garner recognition.
It’s easy to find primitive art and furniture in the antiques shops of Old Town once you know what to look for.
Antique Maison has some truly one-of-a-kind large-scale pieces. Right through the doorway, shoppers can see a tall form of early folk art — a cupboard with original paint, copper screens and square nail construction. It’s certainly a unique piece made from reclaimed materials long ago.
Further back in Antique Maison, John Walrod’s Steampunk Curiosities are sculptures and wallhangings made from found objects, transformed into fun little creatures, clocks and bits of home goods. Walrod is a contemporary artist whose work brings to mind the intricate and often whimsical works of Tramp artists.
Spencer Gray Jr. at Gallery 220 is also known for his fun, vibrant creations and yard art, also made from colorful brick-a-brack. He creates smaller pieces and larger one-of-a-kind sculptures that are filled with animation and delight collectors.
Artist Joe Derr divides time between Bay St. Louis and New Orleans, creating fanciful sculptures and watercolor paintings. The Derr's paintings carried by Bay Life Gifts & Gallery in Century Hall (112 South Second Street), are "framed" in wooden trays or old cigar boxes.
Bay Life owner Janice Guido says several of her customers now collect Derr's work, vying for first shot at them when he brings in new pieces.
Also at Century Hall, Susan Peterson proudly showed off a small chest of drawers that had all the hallmarks of Tramp Art. Hand carved embellishments, drawers made out of cigar boxes and beautiful bits of decorative wallpaper lined the inside.
Hobo, Tramp and Trench may not be the most flattering names to label a world of art, but it turned out these pieces are some of the most desirable finds in Old Town.
Find them and bring them home before they hit the road.