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No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meaning of Tramp Art

Tramp art describes a particular type of wood carving practiced in the United States and Europe between the 1880's and 1940's in which discarded cigar boxes and fruit crates were notched and layered to make a variety of domestic objects. These were primarily boxes and frames in addition to small private altars, crosses, wall pockets, clock cases, plant stands, and even furniture. Whittling objects such as chains and ball-in-cage whimsies was a common hobby―including among rail-riding “hobos”―and for many years “tramp art” was believed to have been made by these itinerants as well. Although this notion has been widely dispelled, the name has stuck. In recent years efforts have been made to identify makers by name and reveal their stories. While some examples of tramp art may be attributed to itinerants, this carving style was more commonly a practice of working-class men creating functional objects for their households.

No Idle Hands presents more than one hundred and fifty tramp art objects collected mainly from the United States and also including pieces from France, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil―demonstrating the far reach this art form has had. It includes works by contemporary artists, thus establishing tramp art as an ongoing folk art form rather than a vestige of the past. The pieces reproduced here reveal an artistic and intricate sensibility applied to each handcrafted piece. Essays consider assumptions about tramp art related to class, quality, and the anonymity of its makers and examine this practice through the lens of home and family while tracing its relationship to the tobacco industry. The book will cultivate an appreciation of an art form that is as thought-provoking as it is enduring.

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