10 North American Folk Art Meccas

Postcards magnets on a wall

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Folk art is the perfect medium for getting in touch with simpler times. And even in today's digitally-focused society, the folk art scene is booming. Decorative and utilitarian works created by untrained artists are displayed in museums and sold in galleries around the U.S. Many people find this style of "everyman art" refreshing, and the best folk pieces can be meaningful in spite of their simplicity.

Here are some great folk art destinations around North America where you can enjoy the simple beauty of the down-to-earth designs.

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New Orleans, Louisiana

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New Orleans is an artist's city. Painters regularly sell their wares in the middle of tourist centers like Jackson Square ([pictured). The folk art scene is arguably more diverse here than anywhere else in the United States. Cajun and Creole artists have centuries of tradition for inspiration. African and Haitian works are also widely available for sale or to view in galleries and small museums.

The Big Easy's folk artists, galleries and museums know how to advertise, too, so it's pretty easy to find dozens of places to appreciate the various design traditions. Even though there is no set "folk art trail," it's easy enough to make your own. A word of caution, though: If you want to purchase crafts or art works, it's best to deal directly with artists since souvenir shops usually sell print and reproductions, not originals.

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Upstate New York

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Upstate New York is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the U.S. Antique shops are scattered all around the area, many housed in buildings that have been standing for two centuries or more. If you're seeking to see or purchase classic folk art pieces, this is one of the best places in the country to visit.

There is no single folk art trail per se, but small towns near upstate hubs like Utica, Syracuse and Albany usually have an antique store or two.

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Asheville, North Carolina

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When people think of folk art, the Asheville area often comes to mind. The southern Appalachians are the birthplace of many forms of traditional arts and crafts. This history, as well as a lively modern folk art scene, is on display along North Carolina's Mountain to Sea Trail.

The section near Asheville, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is known for its scenery, but also for its folk art museums and galleries. Asheville's Folk Art Center draws more than a quarter of a million visitors each year, with a mix of traditional and more-contemporary works. There are other attractions, such as the North Carolina Arboretum, along the route. Some of the best work in the region is done by members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. The guild has shops throughout Appalachia, and they are also involved in local fairs and art shows.

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Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Santa Fe is a haven for artists in general and traditional folk artists in particular. The Museum of International Folk Art is located in this New Mexico city. The galleries are dominated by works inspired by or created by Native Americans. Artists from other parts of the country, and the world, who relocate to New Mexico often adopt the folksy traits of local artists.

There are several annual markets that make Santa Fe a great destination for the traditional arts. The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, the Traditional Spanish Market and the Santa Fe Indian Market are all multi-day celebrations worth your time.

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Northern Tennessee Quilt Trail

Photo: Bill Showalter/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most unique folk art practices in the Americas can be seen in rural Tennessee. The Northern Tennessee Quilt Trail features homemade quilts that are hung on the sides of barns. The trail covers a number of different counties, each of which has multiple quilt displays.

The traditional blankets are just one of the attractions along the Quilt Trail. Travelers will also come across local history and craft museums, which also have quilts on their facades, of course. Some of the quilt farms have gardens or additional art installations if quilts just aren't your thing.

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Florence, Oregon

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Florence is a small coastal town in Oregon. It is may be home to some 8,000 to 9,000 people, but it has a lively arts scene with an annual festival and a Pacific Northwest-flavored Old Town area. The Winter Folk Festival is focused on music, but it also boasts a large artisan fair featuring craft-makers from around the region.

Art galleries are scattered throughout the area. Because of its scene, Florence has become something of a hub for art in Oregon's rural Central Coast region.

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Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

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The Lehigh Valley sits in the easternmost portion of Pennsylvania. The area, around the city of Allentown, is a haven for folk art, a center for private universities and a place where people celebrate a traditional way of life.

Small towns like Kutztown draw visitors from all around the region with their annual folk festivals. The Kutztown event claims to include America's largest quilt sale (pictured). Like many other regional fests, there is also homemade food, handicrafts and family activities.

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Oaxaca, Mexico

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Oaxaca is Mexico's heartland. Most of this culture-rich state is overlooked by tourists. However, this is where many of the arts and craft styles that are associated with Mexico originated. Rough-but-sturdy pottery, rugs and blankets, folksy murals, gourd containers and all sorts of woven apparel and accessories are crafted in this region.

The most attractive thing about this Western Mexico state is that you can find traditional marketplaces and shops where these folksy crafts are sold. There are also higher-end galleries in places like the main city of Oaxaca de Juárez.

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Grand Marais, Minnesota

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Situated on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Grand Marais is a Northwoods port town that's also a hub for winter skiing. During the short summers, the town turns into a center for artists. Galleries line the few waterfront streets. Though some of the shops are geared towards souvenir-seeking Great Lakes tourists, others feature works by serious local artists.

Woodsy themes, Native American influences and crafts made using found objects give the scene a folksy feel. Though Grand Marais is definitely an artistic haven, there are other worthwhile stops all up and down the North Shore, which stretches from the Great Lakes port of Duluth up to (and past) the Canadian border.

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Nova Scotia, Canada

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If you're Canada and need a folk art fix, Nova Scotia is where to head.

Wolfville is home to Uncommon Common Art, a community-wide exhibit that brings art out of galleries and into the streets. Each year, a theme is selected and people collaborate to create artwork around that theme, often using organic materials found in the town. It doesn't get much more folksy than that.

If hands-on art isn't your deal, well, you're out of luck. The tiny town of Annapolis Royal (population: 491) has ARTsPLACE, a public art gallery that hosts the Paint The Town Festival. During this time, artists of all stripes create new works while onlookers (and prospective buyers) watch.