On creating “The American Folk Artist & The American Songstress”, and Folk Art in general


On creating “The American Folk Artist & The American Songstress”, and Folk Art in general.

With a detail of pertinent symbols from the work.

Caleb Mannan

I call myself a ‘folk artist’ because I am 'self-taught' working man with a manic compulsion to create.

Some of the tenets of my folk art are:

·         We are all made in the image of God, our Good Big Daddy. He being first and foremost a Creator, we are Creators too – we must create, for it is holy, healthy, and good.

·         My art is informed by limitations – limited first and foremost by formal training in all practices, limited by supplies and monies, limited by time (in that I am blessed with a job that pays the bills). But in the end, these limitations have been the edge to whet the blade of my creativity.

·         In order to create ‘folk art’ (simply blue collar art created for enjoyment) one has to be fearless, guileless, uninhibited by outside eyes or forces. It is when the grown man is nearest to a childlike state of faith that he is closest to God – it is the same for the artist.

·           I would never discourage formalized training (hell, I need me some), but I would always encourage creating regardless of it. I would encourage creating regardless of one's own evaluation of merit.

·         Some people have a muse – I have a Trickster. Some people wither for lack of the Muse - I go mad if I do not folk The Trickster.

·         I am who I am, I cannot change it – for this I give God the Credit, the Glory, the Blame. Therefore, I will express what I am through my creations with confidence regardless of accreditation or acknowledgement. I call this creating by faith, following my feet, ‘the wild meanderings of the heart’.

·         I believe creating should be done regardless of return.

When I use ‘self-taught’, I merely mean that I have a mad driving ferocity curiosity to figure it out, whatever it is (How the hell does one draw a skull, a tree, a gun, a woman, a child? How does one write a novel? A poem? A story?). I have a joyous yearning to do, so I go forth and seek the ways/means to DO IT. I do not mean that I decry formal teaching or that I am not a learner. On the contrary - I humble myself and sit at the foot of others and learn from them (There is no room for hubris in the folkie – the goal is the innocent faith of a  child). I believe humility is the greatest characteristic of the creator, or a person in general - one who has perspective about one's self, a sense of humor and even disregard for one's self and what they are creating. I actively seek to learn. This learning is a voracious nagging curiosity that will not be sated until it is.  I was never formally schooled in art (I guess I did have a drawing class once when I was 14), but learned to draw from comic books, reference books, anatomy/medical books (As with Basquiat, Grey’s Anatomy was a great help), book illustrations, historical art books and Biblical paintings. As a seeking manic must man, the library was my mother. Being from a small town, museums and art galleries were not an option.  I went to my first art museum with Jenny Anne when I was 25, I saw a Van Gogh and cried…and promptly went home and began wildly trying to Impressionism.

My huge artistic breakout was when I was in Jr High, and Jim Lee began drawing the Punisher: War Journal series for Marvel comics - I was taken with his crisp clean style and copied panel after panel, pose after pose. Also, Kyle Baker’s Dick Tracy trilogy (1990?) blew me away, and you can still see his influence in my lined, contorted cartoon faces. My friends at this time, Brian Siemon and Kevin Morgan, were also creative boys that were better than me and a huge inspiration/encouragement – I stole everything they knew. We all created comic books together (they sucked, of course), my brother Nate (now a graphic designer) would sometimes do the lettering on my ‘covers’ because I didn’t have the time or the patience or skill for this nonsense (still don’t).

Kevin went on to high school, where he took all the art classes he could get his hands on. I was schooled at home during this period, but Kev taught me everything he knew about painting when I was 21 or so, and changed my life.  

Over the years, my art waxed and waned, and though I never quit it, it eventually took a back seat to my first love of writing as my major outlet of personal expression. 

 Earlier this year I got back into experimenting with painting after a long hiatus. The urge was undeniable and uncontrollable, as all my creative urges are (This is the manic creative Spirit of my boyhood hero, my Grandpa JE Jones, singer/songwriter/poet. Just as grandpa had thousands of songs and poems, I have a grip of novels, thousands of short stories, millions of verses scads of art). I was sitting in Church doodling when I had the wild idea to paint a portrait of Jenny Anne and myself. I wanted to convey our artistic partnership and our love in a creative way, as I had never been able to do before. I quickly/badly penned this idea in my tiny memo book, and it was on like Donkey Kong in Mario Cart slipping on a banana peel (N64, of course). I went home and attempted to sketch it a few more times before tossing it aside as a wild hair.

But it wouldn’t go away. I continued to draw, pen n ink and even paint, as well as write some short stories, all the while this idea at the back of my brain and tip of my tongue. I eventually ordered a huge roll of canvas half ass playing chicken with God, following my feet and the wild meanderings of the heart. I took the kids to the library, looked at folk art books, inspired by John Kane and James Castle. But the blank scroll of Moses sat in the basement for months, collecting dust.

And yet, The Trickster wouldn’t leave me alone – I could hear him cawing around the corner just as I have my entire life -

“Caw,” he says. “Come on man,” he says. “Caw. You know you wanna. Caw, Caleb, caw. Caw, man. Caw caw caw caw caw caw caw cawkity goddamn caw - ”

So I followed my feet some more, and began making paintings on plywood in the garage, winter snap still in the air, the baby June Dixie following me in my wild arcs, chatting with me, keeping me steady on the earth. I did these experiments on plywood, in gigantic scale, because, you know, it couldn’t be normal size. That wouldn’t be right… that wouldn’t be epic enough for what I wanted to say. No. It had to be HUGE. Such is the audacity of the folk artist, with little regard for shame.

After these initial experiments, I began in earnest, sketching poses, making Jenny Anne pose for me, making our oldest Violet take pictures of the pose. I painted a portrait of Kev on cardboard in cheap acrylics as a warm up.

I knew I was onto something.

Then in a manic fit one night while at home (August 28th, 2017, to be exact), I toted the giant roll of canvas from its haunt in the basement into the garage, threw it on top of a busted train table headed for the Goodwill and cut a huge swath of it, took down the punching bag, humped two pieces of plywood together end on end reaching to the heavens, to the garage trusses, tacked the canvas on the plywood and began sketching, messing, sketching drawing laying out measuring, running back and forth to the house and garage for supplies, no not that, that doesn’t work, yes, this charcoal, not the pencil, no sumi ink, ye are not the answer, house paint why are you not working, Jenny Anne looking up from her homeschool prep every now and again to smile at me and purposefully not ask what I was doing.

Since I am self-taught, each time I set out to do a work such as this, I have to re-learn what I have taught myself – not unlike breaking my bones and resetting them with each new project, so each time I nail what I am attempting, especially with little pain, I surprise myself. And it goads me on.

When I laid out the initial sketches on canvas, I knew I had what I wanted, so I began with house paint and learned that the house paint I had was too runny on the canvas, so I began using cheap acrylics I had on hand and some older, higher quality Liquitex colors I had, a few still left from midnight painting sessions with Kev some 20 years ago.

Thus began 2 weeks of mad ferocity in the garage, every spare minute after work and on lunch breaks, I listening to music (War on Drugs, Queens of the Stone Age( the kid’s favorite - their new album Villains is GREAT) The Doors, Hank Williams, Lee Bozeman)  and painting with frequent visits and hours spent with the kids and Jenny Anne, the younger two, Waylon & June Dixie, spending the most time with me through the process, playing and chatting with me while I stood on a wooden blue Ikea stepstool I stole from the kitchen or knelt on the dirty concrete floor. I used an old card table as my rickety disheveled work station, scattered with paint tubes, art books, Van Gogh Matisse Dali, books on actually HOW to paint, my sketchbooks, sketches, pencils brushes cups water empty cans, a thin film of sawdust from the nearby chop saw work table covering everything. It was a mess of a process and lack of routine, dipping paint straight from their bottles or on a palette of cardboard and even a seashell from the Oregon Coast I managed to rustle up in a particular frenzy. It was a mad dance of actually dancing, dodging the kid’s bikes, running to Ace Hardware to mix pistachio paint samples (Valspar, baby) and eventually to Spokane Art Supply to purchase decent paints (You cant have a great American portrait with the American Songstress done with Wal Mart Acrylics), scrambling, swearing, squinting shouting, some drinking, of coffee and of gin and of beer and sparkling water, some cigar smoking, some sitting, some thinking, all under watchful eye of children and cats and loving support of Jae or I alone by myself at night listening to the sounds of the neighborhood around me from my garage lair.

It was nuts.

 And lots of actual work. If there is one thing I learned from my mom and dad and family in general, it’s to put your head down and WORK. I apply this blue collar ethic to all my creative endeavors. Bust it like a mule, man, go go go throw your back into it.

 But most of all, the whole thing was just fun as hell. To tackle and be tackled by a daunting project beyond the self. To quit, cussing and ranting, and come back the next day with new perspective. To learn new things, new shadows, new techniques. To have Tennessee, age 9, come to the garage and gaze upon the painting and say "Good job, dad." To have Violet on a Razor scooter provide feedback when I had lost perspective. 

Through the entire process of folking the trickster on this portrait, my wife and creative partner, mother of our beautiful children and musician extraordinaire, never once discouraged my madness, nay, but even encouraged it by standing with me late at night, being my second set of eyes (especially on her eyes, which gave me fits over the entire process) as Ray Bradbury’s wife, and for this I would like to thank her.  I can say without equivocation that my wife has never once, in all our relationship, ever discouraged my folk creativity (she has gently asked me not to use paints on the dining room table anymore - there has to be a line somewhere, I get it, I get it). Over the years, she has actually encouraged and driven my fervor. This is, I believe, the height of creativity – partaking in it with a lover, friend, partner, muse, who encourages and comes alongside of you, and this is why we jokingly refer to ourselves as ‘The Mannan Creative Co-Op’. I believe this is the highest form of cosmic fulfillment, love and peace upon the earth, and I am blessed with it.

The pose of this portrait is a direct reflection of that, Jenny Anne’s left hand, her sinistral/strong hand (she’s a southpaw) on my right shoulder, I being dextral. I once read Nietzsche’s philosophy of the sinistral and the dextral working together to create great things, and I have explored this theme in writing throughout the years.

Anyhoo, folk diatribe ended, I have written up a symbolic detail for this painting, I hope you are able to read it without rolling your eyes. I have written before that I am ‘symbolic to a fault’ in my writing, and in my art its even worse, because symbols are actually symbols, in that they are expressive pictographs instead of simile word symbols. OK I’ll stop now.

I love you all, we are all one tribe, may you create great works with those you love today, now, and forever and ever, amen.



The American Folk Artist & The American Songstress, Detail:


The Artist: I am seated in our yellow chair from our living room, which I have folk painted before. I am seated to reflect my ‘pagan Christianity’, my ‘marching to my own drum’, as my momma is won’t to say about me. It is a pose of non-rebellious ownthink, individuality . It also signifies humility in regards to my relationship with Jenny Anne, especially in the arts. I am deferring to her as more than my equal in all regards.

 The pose is supposed to be masculine, relaxed, humble.

I am wearing my ‘uniform’ of Levi’s and a white v neck t-shirt. My face is blue, I’m not sure why – I was Matissing, Van Goghing here. I like to layer layer layer on faces, each layer being something new until you have something that you know is right.

My tattoos: The tattoos I have on my skin are always symbolic. I didn’t put the kids in this picture because their names are tattooed my left arm, in the painting just as in real life. Also, I am terrible at painting children.

My feet are on art tools, and on my book Bust It Like A Mule, a wink and a nudge to my ‘folk artist’ self-designation, in that I have ‘broken’ both art and writing. Ha!

My bare feet: I, a Van’s slipon fan and boots in general fan, am barefoot - this represents vulnerability, in my relationship to Jae, but also, to the world, releasing my art for all to see.

Beneath the yellow chair is a clutter:

Tanqueray bottle: I just loooove gins n tonics, I love gin, especially Tanqueray. I have written several songs about gin, one of them says ‘There aint no gin in the kitchen, there aint no gin under my chair, there aint no gin in this whole house, I been up n down everywhere’. Hence the empty gin jug under my chair.

Miller High Life can: Our family all American cheap beer of choice. It’s the champagne of beers, y'all! Product placement a wink to Warhol.

American $%@#&: American Slang is an outrageous long rambling poem/song I wrote under my poetic alter ego Woody Whitman about America, dealing with art, race, religion, war, among other things (Think Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman have a son named Hanna Barbera).

Oregon grape cluster: I was born in Portland Oregon, raised in the Willamette Valley until I was 8 years old. This is where my mom and dad are from, and we still have family in this area. They could have kept Portland weird by keeping me there.

The American Songstress: My wife and creative partner Jenny Anne Mannan represents the Saint, my Saint/Valkyrie, her strong hand (Southpaw), on my strong arm, my right, in accordance with the aforementioned philosophy of the right and left working together to create great works of art. She is standing upright to represent her strength, her resilience, her Joan of Arc quality that I find so admirable. Here she also represents the strength of Women, especially as creators, artists, musicians, outside the need of legitimacy from men in these practices.

The pose in general, as I have spoken about already, speaks to the bond of marriage, creative cooperation, a coming together as one, equal individual children under the sight of God.

Jae’s hair is braided to represent the Valkyrie, as I call her my Valkyrie, in essence, my creative muse (This is also represented in real life and in the painting by the Rackham Valkyrie tattoo on my upper left arm). I believe Heaven is Vahallaish, with drinking, fighting and loving, a swarthy Walt Whitman Elysium, therefore, being raised up by a Valkyrie is just a goddamned good thing. She often braids her hair like this and I find it very fetching (When we were first married, I had very long hair, and she used to braid a small strand for me. Now she just cuts my hair).

She is wearing an actual dress of hers and the black booties she loves so much.

Stuff by Jenny Anne’s feet:

The Bible: We were both raised in religion, though we have come to our own understanding of the Gospel together that forms our family nucleus. Jenny Anne is an amateur theologian, from Lewis to Capon to Forde to Luther, she loves it all.

The fiddle: Jenny Anne is an amazing musician and songwriter (Hence the ‘American Songstress’). She is a fiddle champ from back when she was a little girl.

The Kingfisher: Jenny Anne is holding the Kingfisher, which represents The Holy Spirit, the Now, BEING, Making Peace With The Earth. I've written about this extensively, especially in Bust It Like Mule. Kingfisher County is a County in Oklahoma, a County near where my grandpa JE Jones was raised before his family migrated west during the Dust Bowl. The protagonist in Bust it is Cotton Kingfisher from Oklahoma, who settles in Glacier Park in Montana. Last year, when we visited Glacier Park, we saw a Kingfisher floating on Lake McDonald. I saw this as a sign.

The mountains: Mountains, where we were raised, our home, and Elysian longing. The Selkirks.

The Dove: Representing redemption, grace, forgiveness, love, peace and hope. It is carrying a Ponderosa pine bough for (Inland) Washington State.

Pink Sun: Truly the most ‘snapshot’ symbol in the piece (other than my watch, showing approximately 3:30.39ish, when I was painting it) – the wildfires from Montana, Oregon and Washington were raging as I painted this, causing a shroud of smoke to settle on Spokane for a week, making the sun an apocalyptic pink blot.

The crow: My spirit animal, also representing my creative Trickster (‘Some people have a muse - I’ve got a Trickster’).

Wheat and wildflowers: This represents my idea of the afterlife, heaven, Elysium, Valhalla. Directly tied to Stevens County, Washington, where we were both raised – these are actual wildflowers from the area (I believe yarrow and…?).

The river: Jae was raised in Northport, WA, on a piece of land that went down to the Columbia River. I have written that she is ‘a little girl on the big river’. She loves water, and rivers, especially the Columbia and the Clark Fork in Montana.  The river also represents the rivers in Eden, and in a mythical sense, the Eridanus (Eridanos), where Phaeton’s flaming body was doused when he fell/was struck from the sky.

Red and white stripes: Merica, y’all!!