Folk Arts

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By "folk art" folklorists mean all of the aesthetically pleasing crafts that are produced within and for a particular folk community, meet community expectations and tastes, and feature techniques and designs that have been passed down through the years from artist to artist through customary example and imitation in face-to-face situations. By far the most important contributions of Mennonite-related groups to world folk arts are Habaner ceramics, Amish quilts, and Mennonite Fraktur and decorated furniture. Ceramics, Fraktur, furniture, and quilts are discussed in separate articles.

Excellent surveys of contemporary Mennonite household folk arts have been carried out in Canada by Bird, Brednich, Kobayashi, and Patterson, thanks to that country's recent emphasis on ethnic pluralism. In the absence of other such comprehensive surveys and fuller analyses, and with major genres discussed elsewhere, this article will mention some Mennonite achievements in miscellaneous folk art and conclude with some speculative comments on the role of the artist in conservative Mennonite folk culture and on the meanings that various scholars have found in some kinds of Mennonite folk arts.

All considerations of Mennonite achievements in folk art must be in the context of the ingrained Anabaptist, especially Swiss Anabaptist, suspicion of pictorial images. Those Swiss iconoclasts who eliminated all visual symbols from the worship service and the sacraments (ordinances), and, in the Amish schism at least, forbade the depiction of the human form in strict obedience to the Second Commandment, nevertheless often produced striking examples of folk art. The form, design and function of this art need to be considered in the context of an inherent suspicion of the presumed luxury, pride, and idolatry that were associated with "art" by these people.

Paper Cutting

The art of cutting intricate designs with scissors in folded paper (Scherenschnitt) has been practiced by some known Mennonites, including Hans Hofer of Rufenacht, Switzerland (active 1950) and, of special note, Elizabeth Johns Stahley (1845-1930), Amish, of Lagrange County, IN. Mrs. Stahley produced hundreds of cuttings late in her life, primarily of flowers, leaves, and birds from her everyday experience. Most are symmetrical cuttings, done with single-folded paper. Patterson sees in her work everyday models executed in sufficient stylization to suggest spiritual symbols.

Carving and Sculpture

Three-dimensional representational art is particularly rare in Mennonite folk art, perhaps because of the fear of replicating the "idolatry" associated with the Catholics' use of statuary. One exception to this assumption are the doll-like nativity figures made among the Dutch-German Mennonites of Ontario, especially by Hella Braun (b. 1925), three of whose dolls appeared on Canadian postage stamps in 1982.

Many Mennonites, especially men, have become noted for their wood carvings, sometimes painted, of animals and other everyday subjects. Chief among recent carvers is David B. Horst (1873-1965) of St. Jacobs, ON, whose work Bird and Kobayashi regard as attaining "the highest level of Pennsylvania-German woodcarving found in Ontario." He is noted for the animals that he carved and watercolored (ca. 1935-45) after he was paralyzed by a stroke.

Other Ontario wood-carvers include Simeon Eby Martin (b. 1872), Daniel Kuepfer (active 1950), and Herman P. Lepp (active 1951). As of 1951 Isaac H. Funk was actively carving animals in Gretna, MB. Gerhard Esau (b. 1876) of Beatrice, NE, began carving wooden animals when he was a 12-year-old boy in Russia. In the 1980s Christ L. Stoltzfus, Amish, of Narvon, PA, was earning his living by selling painted farm animals cut out by bandsaw.

Some Mennonite and Amish families in the United States own intricate whittlings produced by Daniel Rose (1871-1921) of Johnstown, PA. Registered in Washington, D.C., in 1898 as "Champion Whittler of the United States," he is best remembered by the many intricate carvings -- "an entire village, Noah's ark, all the world's musical instruments" -- that he placed inside glass bottles.

Aaron Zook (b. 1921), a Beachy Amish Mennonite from Kinzers, Lancaster County, PA, has made three-dimensional carved paintings of Mennonite and Amish folklife, such as barn-raisings, auctions, quiltings, and footwashing ceremonies. His twin brother, Abner, a Mennonite from Womelsdorf, PA, has made very large genre paintings.


Nancy-Lou Patterson has studied the designs on several hundred gravestones in nine Waterloo, ON, area cemeteries, especially the 110 slabs in the Eby cemetery, the first one established by Mennonites there. Markers from 1804 to 1854 reflect Pennsylvania-Swiss-German designs, with vertical rectangular shape, architectural design tops, and (from 1833-1845) heart, tulip, willow, quatrefoil, eye, and six-point star decorations. Also working in Ontario, Bird and Kobayashi found a sun-like motif in the Vineland Mennonite Burial Ground and the Wideman Church cemetery, and a variety of designs -- "tulip, tree of life, heart, eye" -- in the East End cemetery in Kitchener. Patterson speculates that the shape of the stone symbolically suggests the door (to heaven) and the arch (or heaven itself), and that the designs also carry the conventional symbolisms associated with heart, tulip, star, and eye in German folk art.


The most important Mennonite achievement in folk painting lies in Fraktur and furniture decoration, both of which often use interchangeable geometric and stylized designs from nature.

In addition, both European and American Mennonites and Amish have made wall-hung mottos, using the technique of reverse painting on glass backed with tinfoil, sometimes called "tinsel painting." Dutch-German Mennonites apparently brought the craft with them from the Ukraine to western Canada, where the art was produced by them well into the mid-20th century. Some (Old) Mennonites Church (MC), many Old Order Amish, and apparently also a few Hutterites still make such mottos. Since the Amish and (Old) Mennonites came from areas in Switzerland and Alsace that have nourished strong glasspainting traditions since the early Renaissance and Reformation, some Anabaptists in those areas must have practiced the art, too. The most famous Anabaptist glass painter, however, was from the Low Countries -- David Joris learned the art in Antwerp and earned his living by it in England (briefly) and on the continent. Several other lesser known Dutch Anabaptists were involved in the trade. (Waite, 65-68)

In the late 1980s the folk art of glass painting seems to derive from the early 1930s, influenced by the Art Deco revival of reverse painting on glass, by mass-produced wall decorations in reverse painting, and especially by elementary school art class instruction in that medium. In any event, Mennonites and Amish throughout the United States (although apparently not in Ontario) produced many homemade "mottos" featuring Scripture verses, moral sayings, and family records (birth, marriage, death, birthday, anniversary, etc.) from about 1930 to 1950, with interest tapering off then until the 1990s at which time this form of folk art was barely surviving.

Following the tradition of European Protestantism since the Reformation, the paintings almost always feature an inspiring or instructive text decorated by birds, flowers, or scenes from nature. The paintings are almost never wholly pictorial, nor do they often depict the human form -- particularly those by the Old Order Amish. Nevertheless, even the Amish paintings verge heavily toward the pictorial and decorative, with the text sometimes minimized.

Designs come from needlework patterns, coloring books, other mottos -- any easily available household source. Called "mottos" even if they contain no scriptural or moral reference, these paintings are sold informally to friends, neighbors, and relatives, or given as personal or commemorative gifts, much as was done with Fraktur by other Mennonite groups in earlier years. Sometimes they are also found for sale in country stores serving the Amish community. Women producing reverse glass mottoes in the 1980s in Elkhart and Lagrange Counties, IN, include Jewel Miller (Mrs. Kenneth) Bontrager, Mary Yoder (Mrs. Merlin) Lehman, Martha Otto, and Katie (Mrs. Floyd) Miller (all Old Order Amish). The art is reported as still alive in Amish communities in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, as well.

The technique of painting mottoes on top of glass, with opaque paint applied to the backside, also has been popular among Mennonite and Amish groups since about 1930 and, in fact, has superseded tinsel painting in acceptance in the 1980s. Compared to the reverse glass mottos, these usually have minimal decoration and longer texts. The Willis Steiner family (Mennonite) of Dalton, Ohio, was a large supplier of mottos and materials for making them, until the death of Mrs. Steiner in 1985. Bertha Schrock (Amish) of Tempico, IL, was the main source of supplies in 1990. Since 1943 Virgie (Mrs. James) Lauver, Brethren in Christ, has been selling such mottoes wholesale to bookstores and other retailers through Friendly Sales of Quakertown, PA.

Closely related to this motto tradition is the making of decorated family records, especially by the Old Order Amish, sometimes (as noted above) using the tinsel technique. Ivan Hochstetler of Topeka, IN continued the art of Spencerian penmanship in making family records on paper for his Amish community. Members of the Abraham Z. Peachey family of Belleville, Pa., sell family records painted on top of glass. John F. Glick of Gap, PA, made family records to be sold by mail order. His work comes closest to resembling older Fraktur techniques, since he decorated his pen-written records with painted flowers and flourishes.

As with almost all other folk groups, easel painting (oils or acrylics on canvas or board) is not a true folk art among Mennonite and Amish groups. That is, there is no easel painting tradition that has been used continuously over time by a community whose artists master the technique by the customary imitation of fellow artists. There are, however, some "untaught" Mennonite and Amish "folk" artists whose works are widely known, even though they are not accepted, used, or commissioned by members of their own communities. The most prominent one working in 1990 was probably Emma Schrock (1924-1991), of near Wakarusa, IN, an Old Order Mennonite who paints genre scenes in acrylic. Although her church frowns upon representations of the human form, she often includes human beings in her paintings. Works by Emma Schrock have been on display in the Mathers Museum in Bloomington, IN, and elsewhere.

Self-taught Amish painters likewise face the double dilemma of creating works that they themselves may not hang on their own walls and of painting human figures that are forbidden by the strict rulings of their congregations (church districts). Benuel King (b. 1925) of Cambridge, PA, a farmer and horse dealer, does both, although most of his acrylics are of farmscapes and other local scenery. Abraham Z. Peachey paints Mennonite and Amish farmscapes of the Kishacoquillas Valley near Belleville, PA, although he never paints the human figure.

Self-taught Mennonite painters in Waterloo County, ON, include Orvie Shantz of Lexington (active ca. 1930) and Benneval G. Martin (1876-1935) of St. Jacobs, makers of farmscapes, and Absalom Martin (1902-1977) of St. Jacobs who painted railroad scenes.

Although such artists do not fit the mold of the folk artist as well as do the tinsel painters, they are more "folk" than is the familiar Grandma Moses, with whom they are sometimes compared. Grandma Moses was a "memory painter"; that is, her scenes were naive, nostalgic renderings of a long-past era of American culture. All of the Mennonites and Amish named above, however, paint scenes from the life that surrounds them. That ties them and their work more intimately with the folk community and its meaning than is true of many other self-taught, sometimes called "folk," painters. With Emma Schrock they can say, "We live what I paint and I paint what I see."

One Mennonite memory painter is Leah Johnson, a Holdeman Mennonite (Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) from Montezuma, KS, who since 1967 has painted sod houses set in various Kansas regional landscapes. She uses a self-developed, three-dimensional sand-painting technique that was revealed to her following the death of her husband when she was suddenly faced with earning her own living. She has also illustrated books with drawings of her favorite subjects, notably True Sod, written by Barbara Oringdeff.

Another memory painter from earlier Mennonite culture is Emil "Maler" Kym (1862-1918), of Buhler, KS, who affiliated with the Mennonites following his immigration to Goessel, Kansas, from Hoholen, Switzerland, in 1893. Between 1896 and 1915 he painted genre scenes of his Swiss homeland on the walls of his Mennonite neighbors' homes. His murals may be the latest and the farthest west of this genre of American folk art. Kym also did wood-graining and marbleizing and furniture-decorating. Other Mennonite wall decorators in the early Kansas settlements are Jacob Harms (active 1895-1920), a Holdeman Mennonite from near Moundridge; P. R. Doerksen (active 1913) from Inman; and John Wall from the Buhler-Inman area.

Folk Arts Revival

Mennonites have been active in the revival of traditional arts. In Switzerland, Hans Ramseier (b. 1909) of Eggiwil near Langnau has recently given woodworking lessons throughout Switzerland, having mastered the craft since attending a woodworking school in Brienz in 1930. He makes carved furniture, accessories, and ecclesiastical and commemorative items, and has passed the skill on to his daughter, Justina Zuercher, and his son-in-law, Fritz Rothlisberger.

In the United States, Carolyn Schultz of North Newton, KS, is nationally known for her revival of wheat weaving, which she learned in England. In 1982 she conducted a workshop at the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. She has also published a book, Wheat Weaving Made Easy. Perhaps the greatest impact of Mennonites on the American revival movement, however, are the designs and colors of antique Amish quilts, described in several pattern books published for the mass market.


The status of the folk artist within Mennonite communities apparently differs from that of the practitioner of the "fine arts." Whereas the latter often feels estranged, the folk artist seems to enjoy respect and integration into the life of the folk group. That is particularly true of the folk artist who produces articles for the folk group, as opposed to the folk artist whose items are sold to outsiders. Yet there is often a more subtle social separation of the folk artist from the folk group. Except perhaps for furniture-makers who produce essential goods, other folk artists seem to play more marginal social roles.

A number of folk artists from the most conservative groups are physically disabled -- Emma Schrock (Old Order Mennonite painter), Daniel Rose (Mennonite carver), Christ L. Stoltzfus (Old Order Amish carver). Leah Johnson (Holdeman Mennonite painter) and Sarah M. Weaver of Millersburg, Ohio (Amish poet and illustrator), are widows. Amish tinsel painters are often teenage girls or unmarried middle-aged women. The folk artist who produces things for pay, therefore, may be fully accepted by the community, but plays a secondary role in its economy, receiving special permission because of special employment needs. The matter deserves further study, particularly in comparison with the status of artists in other conservative religious folk groups.


Nancy-Lou Patterson has attempted the most interesting cultural and religious analyses of Mennonite folk art. In comparing Swiss-German and Dutch-German folk art in Waterloo County, Ontario, she finds that the former retains more of the stylization of earlier Germanic folk traditions and that the latter shows more acculturation to elite culture by being much more naturalistic. She accounts for this by claiming that the Swiss-Germans have always been more suspicious of academic art, have remained more rural and have long lived beside other Germanic folk groups. The Dutch-Germans, however, have always been more involved in the fine arts, were urban, educated, and industrialized even in Russia, and in Canada have tended to live beside people rather removed from peasant folk culture.

In examining the meaning of the content of Mennonite art, she joins such folk art historians as John Jacob Stoudt in finding religious symbolism in traditional German stylized designs as well as in landscapes and garden designs in contemporary Mennonite folk art. She is able to connect recently made rugs, paintings, and actual farm layouts with spiritualistic interpretations of gardens and dwellings, stemming, she claims, from books, e.g., Johann Arndt's Das Paradiesgärtlein voller Christlicher Tugenden, which have been part of Mennonite piety since the 17th century.

Although her conclusions are speculative and controversial, they nevertheless are correct in taking Mennonite folk arts seriously and probing them for cultural and spiritual meanings. Her work points the way to the more extensive study that remains to be done of historic and contemporary Mennonite folk arts.

See also Crafts of the Hutterian Brethren


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Beck, Ervin. "Glass Painting by Plain People." Folklife Annual. Washington, D.C.: American Folklife Center, 1988.

Bird, Michael and Terry Kobayashi. A Splendid Harvest: Germanic Folk and Decorative Arts in Canada. Toronto: Van Nostrand, 1981.

Brednich, Rolf. Mennonite Folklife and Folklore: A Preliminary Report. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1977.

Bronner, Simon J.  "We Live What I Paint and I Paint What I See": A Mennonite Artist in Northern Indiana." Indiana Folklore 12, no. 1 (1979): 5-17.

"Daniel Rose -- Champion Whittler." Christian Monitor 18, no. 6 (June 1926): 163-64.

Friesen, Steve. "Emil 'Maler' Kym, Great Plains Folk Artist." The Clarion (Fall 1978): 34-39.

Gleysteen, Jan. "A Sampler of Swiss German-Pennsylvania Dutch Design." Festival Quarterly 8 (May-July 1981): 14-15.

Gleysteen, Jan. "Emmental Folk Art Today; A Visit with Hans Ramseier." Festival Quarterly 8 (February-April 1981): 38.

Gleysteen, Jan. "The European Roots of Pennsylvania Dutch Art." Festival Quarterly 7 (November-January 1980-81): 33.

McCauley, Daniel and Kathryn. Decorative Arts of the Amish of Lancaster County. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books 1988.

Oringdeff, Barbara. True Sod, illustrated by Leah Johnson. N. Newton: Mennonite Press, 1976.

Patterson, Nancy-Lou Patterson. "Death and Ethnicity: Swiss-German Mennonite Gravestones of the 'Pennsylvania Style' (1804-54) in the Waterloo Region, Ontario." Mennonite Life 37, no. 3 (September 1982): 4-7.

Patterson, Nancy-Lou. "The Flowers in the Meadow: The Paper Cuttings of Elizabeth Johns Stahley." Mennonite Life 34, no. 1 (March 1979): 16-20.

Patterson, Nancy-Lou. "See the Vernal Landscape Glowing: The Symbolic Landscape of the Swiss-German Mennonite Settlers in Waterloo County." Mennonite Life 38, no. 4 (December 1983): 8-16.

Pelman, Rachel T. Amish Quilt Patterns. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1984.

Schultz, Carolyn and Adelia Stuckey. Wheat Weaving Made Easy. N. Newton: Mennonite Press, 1977.

Stoudt, John Joseph. Pennsylvania German Folk Art: An Interpretation. Allentown, Pa.: Schlecter's, 1966.

Waite, Gary K. "Spiritualizing the Crusade: David Joris in the Context of the Early Reform and Anabaptist Movements in the Netherlands, 1524-1543." PhD diss., U. of Waterloo, 1986: 65-68, cf. Sixteenth Century Journal 18 (1987).

Author(s) Ervin Beck
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Beck, Ervin. "Folk Arts." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 27 Sep 2022.

APA style

Beck, Ervin. (1990). Folk Arts. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 September 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 301-303. All rights reserved.

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