Ideas & Culture

A 93-year-old artist named Jimmy Lee Sudduth is helping Scott Blackwell build his brand. The president of the Immaculate Baking Co. reproduces paintings by Sudduth and other folk artists on packages of cookies that he sells through Williams-Sonoma, Dean & Deluca, and Whole Foods Market. He pays as much as $3,000 for commercial rights to the art. "I wanted southern but not country, not pickup trucks and trailers," Blackwell says. "It was a simple but deliberate approach."

The folksy image helped Immaculate hit $1 million in sales last year, up 82% over 2001. "Though it is impossible to measure, packaging almost always plays a part in how a product sells," says Whole Foods Market buyer Mary Margaret Graham.

There is a tradition of applying the iconography of fine art to packaging. L'Oréal famously borrowed from Piet Mondrian, and the new AOL icon stepped out of a Keith Haring canvas. As collectors have embraced folk art -- Christie's held its first major auction this year, where prices soared from $70,000 to $600,000 per work -- marketers have taken notice.

Experts say folk imagery is also ending up on store shelves because it implies wholesomeness -- plus, it's distinctive. As Rebecca Hoffberger of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum notes, "The physical eye is so dead to the typeface that we see every day" that folk art stands out.

"I wanted southern but not country, not pickup trucks and trailers," says Blackwell.

Among the first to employ folk art were the Talking Heads and R.E.M., who used Howard Finster paintings as album covers. Food producers such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Horizon Organic Dairy, and Celestial Seasonings also embraced folk imagery early on.

For Blackwell, folk art perfectly captures the nature of his company. He started in 1995 with a dozen eggs, a carton of milk, and a KitchenAid mixer -- selling cookies out of his garage. As the business grew, so did his folk art collection, which fills a warehouse today. Now, via a nonprofit, he hopes to give back to Sudduth and others who have helped him. Someday he wants to display their work, not only on cookie boxes, but also in a museum next to his bakery.

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