Monday, August 31, 2009

The Negro Portrayed as "a Beast"

This is the first of a series of posts highlighting important folk art pieces that will be featured in our traveling exhibition Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art opening at the New York State Museum in Albany on September 8. This exhibition, curated by Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, explores the depictions of African Americans in 19th- and 20th-century American art created by white artists. A section of the exhibition also contrasts these images with works by African American artists dealing with the issues of race and identity.

The subject of this post is one of our most famous pieces, a sculpture of a dancing black man created about 1830-50 by an unidentified, almost certainly white, artist. This carving, which is 44 1/4" tall, was originally found in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1930s by the pioneering museum director and curator Holger Cahill. Cahill mounted some of the earliest folk art exhibitions at the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in the early 30s. At the time of its discovery, tradition held that this sculpture was originally a tavern sign. From Cahill it found its way into the collection of the modernist sculptor and folk art collector Elie Nadelman. After Nadelman’s death in 1947, it was purchased by Stephen C. Clark for the folk art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum. Its title at the time was “Dancing Negro.”

The sculpture certainly has seen the ravages of time and the elements. It was originally brightly painted and would have been an eye-catching image on a streetscape. It also would have been a familiar image, as the figure is a stereotypical Jim Crow character of the kind popularized in the minstrel music of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, seen below in a 19th-century engraving.


The amazing thing about our sculpture is how its racial caricature eluded so many knowledgable viewers over the years. In fact,the stereotyping of the figure’s dilapidated clothing and exaggerated facial features seems to have been, for most viewers, invisible. Cahill and Nadelman obviously admired it for its vitality and sense of physical movement. The art deco sculptor Paul Manship once called it “the greatest piece of American sculpture made before 1850.” And I distinctly recall scholars in the 1980s wondering aloud if this might be a portrait. Dr. Sorin’s label redresses this imbalance by stating: “The sculpture’s small stature and animal-like appearance reinforced ideas about black people as subhuman and beast-like.” The piece, now titled “Stereotypical Carving of an African American Man,” appears in the section of the exhibition that she entitled “The Negro Portrayed as 'a Beast.'”

Through the Eyes of Others is full of these provocative images of African Americans, juxtaposed with dynamic works exploring racial identity by such prominent African american artists as Lorna Simpson, Faith Ringgold, and Kyra Hicks. The exhibition shows how much of our nation’s history is bound up in considerations of race. It stands to reason that this great national dilemma would be reflected in our art as well, at all levels of society. Through the Eyes of Others will be on view at the State Museum through January 6, 2010.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: The Kitchen Companion

I roughed him out with a double bitted axe and then started carving. Took me almost a month to hollow out the chair and leave the rungs. I’ve got him sitting on a kitchen chair – figured he was a poor cuss, like me, and he’d feel right at home.


Visitors to the Bakersfield, Vermont home of woodcarver Frank Moran would, it is said, often have to take a second glance before realizing that the “person” they saw sitting in the kitchen was actually a life-size wooden figure of Abraham Lincoln. Placed next to the coal stove in a simple, dignified manner, “Old Abe” was fulfilling the only purpose his maker envisioned – keeping him company.


Frank Moran (1877-1967) was a Vermont farmer, carpenter, and woodcarver who, sometime around 1940, transformed a single pine log into his personal vision of an American hero without the help of power tools or even a picture of Lincoln to use as a model (although the influence of Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln Memorial Statue, below, is apparent). It is interesting that Moran depicted the clean-shaven, youthful Lincoln rather than the bearded figure we all know so well. After finding the log on a friend’s farm and dragging it to his home, he seasoned the wood for three years and then carved the figure from memory over a period of another two years. The result was an astonishing likeness, a monumental piece of folk sculpture, and most importantly for the artist, a suitable companion.


Moran had grown up in Bakersfield working on local farms, married in 1895, and worked in Massachusetts as a woodcarver, carpenter, and cabinetmaker. When he moved back to Vermont in 1917 he also took up carriage making. After his father died, Moran moved to his family farm – alone – and lived there in solitude for the last forty years of his life. There was no electricity, no central heating, and no other modern conveniences. The sign above his door read simply “Frank Moran – Woodcarver.”

Moran became well known locally as a “friendly hermit” and despite his need for privacy he greatly enjoyed entertaining visitors with banjo, fiddle, and storytelling. He kept carving too, embellishing useful items like chests, cabinets, and gun stocks, and also making sculpture busts of political figures (Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Stalin, and Hitler, as well as this small standing figure of George Washington, also in our collection). Some of his finest carvings were made for his local church, St. Anthony’s in East Fairfield.

But the life-size seated figure of Lincoln was Moran’s greatest achievement, and one he vowed never to part with. When offered sizeable sums of money for the piece, he would reply that Old Abe “would never stand up – or leave here.” And so Old Abe remained next to the coal stove in Moran’s kitchen until his maker’s death in 1967, after which it found a new permanent home here at the Fenimore Art Museum.


We have never cleaned off the dark stains left by the proximity to the coal stove, since they are so much a part of the sculpture’s history. It’s nice to think that this might be a comfort to the artist, as well as Old Abe’s continued ability to startle the occasional night watchman.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Folk Stylists



Warren Kimble is often touted as “America’s best known contemporary folk artist” and is the subject of an exhibit in the Lighthouse Galleries at the Shelburne Museum on view through October. I saw this exhibit on my recent trip to the museum and thought it would be useful to use the occasion to introduce my readers to the world of trained artists who paint in a folk art style. In the past, these artists have been referred to as “faux naives” or “folk stylists,” but as you can tell from the tag line above, people often confuse the issue and call them folk artists in order to market exhibitions or products relating to this artwork. It is important to know the difference between their work and the folk art that is the primary subject of this blog and the folk art galleries at the Fenimore Art Museum.

Warren Kimble is a fine artist; no question about it. He received his training at Syracuse University and joined the art faculty at Castleton State College in Castleton, Vermont. This training shows in the works displayed on the second floor of the Lighthouse, which deal with themes of war and its human toll and hope for the future (see "Widows of War" installation below). His abstract compositions and object installations are quite good and much more substantive than his stylized folk pieces in the first floor galleries.


The latter feature his trademark style of exaggerated proportions and nostalgic themes that take some of the common attributes of folk art and generalize them for broad audience appeal (the cow, below, is perhaps his best known example). They are basically folk d├ęcor – which is fine, if you enjoy that – but they are not folk art in any real sense.


Kimble is by no means the only artist to appropriate folk art style into a commercially viable genre – Charles Wysocki comes to mind – but he may be the most successful. Vermont Living claims his licensing contracts bring in more than $100 million annually.



While there’s nothing wrong with consciously and deliberately painting in a folk art style even after years of artistic training, and nothing wrong with decorating one’s home with this type of art, it’s better not to confuse this output with folk artists who learned to create art informally or through community traditions, and who make art because of an inescapable desire to communicate something important about their lives and the world as they see it. In my mind, nothing trumps the aesthetics of meaning.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Trash Becomes Electra



There are only a few places in the United States where you can see large collections of classic American folk art. I mean the folk art that was collected in the early decades of the 20th century, when Americana enthusiasts were just beginning to realize how broad and diverse the country’s heritage really was. I spent last Friday at one of these destinations: the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont.

Founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), an heiress to the Havemeyer fortune, the museum includes much more than folk art. In her lifetime, Mrs. Webb acquired more than 150,000 pieces and relocated 25 historic buildings to her property in Shelburne. The result is a fascinating and wide-ranging romp through American material culture and architecture, not as a cohesive historic village like our own Farmers’ Museum, but as a collection of experiences, each very different from the one before.


Mrs. Webb started collecting folk art early by Americana standards, acquiring her first piece, a cigar store figure purchased for $15, in 1907. Her mother, Louisine Havemeyer, a collector of European and Asian art, saw the trade signs and cigar store figures that Electra had at her Long Island home and asked her: “How can you, Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”

Talk about the glorious results of a misspent youth. The Shelburne’s folk art collection can be seen in a number of different buildings at the museum, but most of the best pieces are in the Stagecoach Inn. The collection is stunning in its quality and breadth, and ranks right up there with our own collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in many categories. To be honest, it is better than our in some areas. For my own amusement, I did a quick and unscientific scorecard comparing our two collections, based upon what was on view and the pieces I could recall from past visits and publications.

Folk Art Scorecard: Fenimore vs. Shelburne

Portraits: Fenimore
Landscapes/townscapes: Fenimore
Schoolgirl art: Shelburne
Quilts: Shelburne
Sculpture: Shelburne
Ceramics (stoneware): Fenimore
Ceramics (redware): Shelburne
20th century: Fenimore

All in all, pretty evenly matched. The point for you, however, is not a useless and indefensible curatorial exercise. If you love folk art, these are two collections you must see, as they complement each other in many ways and are of very high quality. They are an important window into the lives of ordinary Americans, and prove beyond dispute that the academy has no monopoly on great art.

And it is even more fascinating to consider that, barely a century ago, this material was referred to as trash. We should be grateful to the few passionate and stubborn people, like Mrs. Webb and our own Stephen Clark, who knew better.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Limner on the Lam


Have you ever felt like you’ve known someone for decades but perhaps don’t know them at all?

To me, Samuel Jordan was some little-documented, mild-mannered itinerant portrait painter working in New Hampshire in the 1830s. Our two signed and dated portraits by him have hung in our storage area (they’re not great artworks) at least since I arrived here in 1983. My 1987 entry on him in our catalogue Folk Art’s Many Faces refers to the scarce biographical data and the few known paintings in the Fenimore Art Museum and other collections.

Boy do I have a new opinion of this guy now.

This month’s Antiques and Fine Art includes an article on Jordan by Deborah Child that is just stunning in its revelations. It turns out that Jordan, who was born in Boston in 1804 and fought in the War of 1812 on board a privateer, once told a prison keeper that he “was never given to Drink & that this is almost the only vice to which he was not addicted.”

Jordan was sent to Massachusetts State Prison in the mid 1820s for passing counterfeit money. While incarcerated he continued plying this trade, and was caught altering bills during a prison search in 1825. Three months after his release, he stole a horse and, angry at the prison keeper, wrote a letter under the pseudonym “Richard III” threatening the keeper and his family. He was arrested again, and served five years of an eight year sentence.

While in prison in 1829, Jordan began to sketch and received encouragement to become an artist. This is not surprising, since the prison officials wanted to give him something better to do than steal from other inmates, traffic in contraband, and try to escape. Jordan was eventually pardoned on the condition that he leave the United States for four years.

He got as far as New Hampshire, and that’s where our portraits come in. They were painted in Plaistow, and may depict the local postmaster and his wife (above) and the postmaster’s parents (below).


Jordan’s respectable career as an artist didn’t last long, however. Charged with burglary in 1834, he was tried under an assumed name and given 20 years, but that sentence was changed to life when he arrived at the prison and officials recognized him as a repeat offender. Two years later, in September 1836, he escaped from prison with six others who planned to make their way to Texas. He was never heard from again.

I’m pretty sure that Samuel Jordan is not someone I would have wanted to paint likenesses of me and my family, for reasons of both aesthetics and self-preservation. It is an intriguing thought, however, that somewhere out there we might find a previously unknown group of portraits of frontier settlers in the southwest. Or maybe just a wad of altered bills moldering away in a hot Texas attic.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Warrior Mermaid


Sometimes the complexity behind even the simplest work of American folk art can be astounding. The Fenimore Art Museum has had this work, “Maremaid” by Mary Ann Willson (painted about 1800-1825) on view in our galleries since it was purchased by our benefactor Stephen C. Clark from legendary folk art collector Jean Lipman in 1950. It is a bright, beautiful work of art, but for the most part it only merits passing notice as a depiction of a mermaid with all of the usual associations with sailors and the sea.

Way off base here. When this artist was discovered in the 1940s, a group of watercolors by her acquired by the Harry Stone Gallery in New York came with a mid-19th-century letter by an anonymous “Admirer of Art” that gave some background on the artist. The letter reads, in part:

The artist, Miss Willson and her friend, Miss Brundage, came from one of our eastern States and made their home in the town of Greenville, Green County, New York….One was the farmer (Miss Brundage)…while the other (Mary Ann Willson) made pictures….These two maids left their home in the East with a romantic attachment for each other and which continued until the death of the “farmer maid.” The artist was inconsolable, and after a brief time, removed to parts unknown.

Okay, so a publically acknowledged (and presumably accepted) same-sex union in the first two decades of the 19th century definitely distinguishes Miss Willson as ahead of her time. But it goes further than that.

This is no ordinary mermaid.

It is an extremely clever picture loaded with puns and classical allusions. First of all, a mermaid is supposed to hold a comb and a mirror; at least that’s how they were depicted in signs, tradecards and weathervanes of the era (see below, from the Shelburne Museum). Willson’s figure holds a bow and arrow (which sports tines rather than feathers!). And what’s up with the hairdo? One side – the right – is lopped off. A number of scholars see the combination of images as a clear allusion to the classical tradition of the fearsome female Amazon warriors, who had their right breasts removed to make them better archers. The tail includes iconography of a more domestic sort: the “scales” resemble clamshell quilting patterns popular at the time.


Lastly, the title, “Maremaid,” a clever pun that includes the Latin word for “sea” (Mare) and also calls to mind the artist’s name, Mary.

So this unique little watercolor hangs in our galleries in its unassuming way, offering its secrets now only to those curious enough to stop and read the label beside it. Every so often, you can hear a visitor’s gasp all the way to the admissions desk in the lobby.

Monday, August 17, 2009

If these walls could talk


To say that you find folk art in the most unexpected places can be, in some circumstances, an understatement. Consider the case of John Orne Johnson (J. O. J.) Frost of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Frost was born in Marblehead in 1852 and went to sea as a young man, then settled down, married, had two children, and went into the restaurant business with his father-in-law. He retired due to illness in 1865 and helped his wife Annie raise her acclaimed sweet peas and flowers. After Annie’s death in 1919 he lived a quiet, solitary existence.

To fill his days, and perhaps overcome his grief, Frost took up painting. He depicted vivid scenes of Marblehead’s history, memories of his own life, and wooden models of ship, buildings, birds, and fish. Local legend has it that he often carted his paintings around town in a wheel barrow, offering them for fifty cents each.

Eventually he was inspired to open his own museum at his home on Pond Street, where he built a small structure in the back and charged 25 cents to see his works and hear his stories of old Marblehead. Stories abound about how local folks made fun of the paintings, but did not deter Frost from his enterprise.


Frost died in 1928, and his son Frank inherited about 80 paintings. He sold some to a couple who arranged for a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which marked Frost’s first recognition as an artist, however short-lived.

The drama really unfolded in 1952, when a Mr. and Mrs. Mason bought the old Frost home on Pond Street. One day, while doing renovations to the house, they turned over some wallboards and found that the insides were painted with colorful scenes. By the time they finished their work, the Masons had discovered 33 Frost paintings that had been used by the artist's son to “sheetrock” rooms! The Masons sent the paintings off to galleries in New York and Boston in 1954, and Frost’s reputation as a major early 20th-century folk artist was sealed. Today his works are in major museums around the country.

You can see an impressive collection of Frost’s work at the Marblehead Historical Society and we always have one on view at the Fenimore Art Museum (see "Colonel Glover's Fishermen Leaving Marble Head for Cambridge, 1775" above). To me, it is another reminder to pay attention to those passionate local people who paint or sculpt their lives. And don’t ever pass up a fifty-cent painting in a wheelbarrow.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Headless Bodies: Myth or Fiction?


In the more than 25 years of doing folk art exhibitions and giving tours to the public, I can attest that there is one “fact” that nearly everyone believes about folk art: folk portrait painters in the early and mid- 1800s painted the bodies in the winter and traveled around in the summer offering to paint one’s head in a body of one’s choosing. In fact, every time I take a tour group through the folk art galleries there is someone who will say, “Oh, those are the portraits where they painted the bodies in the winter…” How this iron-clad association came to be, I have no idea. It has not appeared in any published sources that I know of, even the popular magazines or newspapers that write about folk art.

So it will probably come as no surprise to you that it is patently untrue. Not that I can prove it to be false, but it stands to reason that if this was a wide-spread practice we would have found some headless bodies by now. Maybe stored away in some attic. Or in an artist’s estate. Or a little New England historical society collection (they save everything). Or at least written about in some diary or newspaper account from the 1830s or 1840s. But there is nothing. Dead silence on this issue.

What we do have, by contrast, is heads without bodies. Doesn’t that make more sense? People were particular about their likenesses. Before photography was invented in 1839 the portrait you had painted may well have been the only likeness of you taken in your lifetime. Often, artists would start with the head, sometimes on the back of a canvas to practice. Sometimes, the picture is left unfinished for some unknown reason, and the head is left to float forever on the blank canvas. It would be pretty inconvenient – and an inefficient way of doing business – to travel the highways and byways with a load of headless bodies on canvas, hoping that you can somehow sell them all on your travels.

I suspect that the reason this myth came to be is the simple visual fact that many folk portraitists utilized stock poses and backgrounds to speed production of their work. The portraits shown here, by Samuel Miller, illustrate this practice. There is a certain sameness to how people presented themselves, and how they dressed, and how their interiors looked, that made this way of doing portraiture acceptable in many circumstances. But that’s still a far cry from peddling headless bodies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Folk Art: It’s on your way to anywhere


The most remarkable thing about folk art is that it can be found anywhere. Perhaps the most exciting place to find folk art is along the highways or back roads of any region in the country. There are numerous folk artists who do more than make art; they create experiences by transforming their property into artistic environments that can be explored on foot.







These roadside attractions have been around for decades, but they have received a great deal of attention in the past 20 years or so. The most famous example is Watts Towers in Los Angeles, (above, right) created by Simon Rodia from the 1920s to the 1950s and now a National Historic Landmark. Rodia was an Italian immigrant who spent 33 years making these 99-foot-tall towers out of steel pipes and rods coated with mortar and embedded with ceramic and glass.



Some of my favorite environments are in the South. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia (above), was an amazing experience up until the mid 1990s, when I had the pleasure of visiting on several occasions. Finster was a Baptist preacher who believed he was instructed by God to "paint sacred art." The garden was one way he had of spreading the Gospel. Much of the best art from the garden is now in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a necessary step as exposure to the elements poses threats to many of these creations.




Another favorite folk environment is closer to home: Veronica Terrillion’s “Woman-Made” house and garden in Indian River, New York (above). I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Terrillion some years ago and getting a tour of her environment. It is a stunning collection of concrete figures that represent her life and her interest in nature. Veronica died in 2003, but her garden can still be seen from the roadside and can be visited by appointment. You can find out more here.


Why do these artists create these fantastic settings? Many are driven by an intense need to share some aspect of their lives, and for them, a picture or series of pictures isn't enough. They need to draw people into their world in a real, physical way. If you have ever been in one of these environments, you will quickly realize that being enveloped in some else's imagined and created world is an extremely effective way of understanding their life and its relation to your own. That really is the point of all art. It's just doubly impressive when someone with no prior aptitude in the arts is able to draw upon their manual skills gleaned from a lifetime of hard work to make something truly magical. I'll be featuring some stellar folk art environments in more detail in the weeks to come, so keep your eye out here and on the road. Do let me know if you see something I should be aware of.

After a visit to any one of the hundreds of these environments in the US, you will forever be on the lookout for great folk art on your journeys just about anywhere. It can make an ordinary trip the experience of a lifetime.

Remembering Parker Hayes



"It's not that I'm so smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer."-- Albert Einstein

Parker Hayes (CGP '97) began the process that has ultimately led to the 2002 exhibition "Drawn Home: Fritz Vogt’s Rural America” in the fall of 1996, as a student in my American folk art class in CGP. His aptitude for knowing and understanding American folk art, and his frantic search for a thesis project, brought to mind my long-range goal of fully exploring the life and work of the well-known but highly mysterious Fritz Vogt. Vogt was a German immigrant who wandered on foot from house to house offering to draw beautiful linear renderings of the dwellings and farms in the towns and villages of the Mohawk Valley (northeast of Cooperstown) in the 1890s. Parker took this project on with enthusiasm and perseverance, and over the course of the next six years he compiled a large body of information on Vogt’s drawings, which he developed into an elctronic database. Much of this information is now available to scholars and the public in the form of the exhibition and catalogue that he produced for the Fenimore Art Museum.

The remarkable thing about Parker’s completion of this project is that it occurred in the midst of a busy professional career. Since graduating from Cooperstown in 1997 he held curatorial positions at the Airmen Memorial Museum at Andrews Air Force Base, the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service. He also found time to come back to Cooperstown to share his experiences in the Vogt project with my folk art class, as shown in these photos.

The dedication and persistence that Parker demonstrated in his six-year pursuit of Fritz Vogt illustrates how a simple class project can blossom into an exciting and important contribution to the field. Not only was the Fritz Vogt exhibition featured at the Fenimore Art Museum in 2002, it also traveled to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida. The New York Times, reviewing Parker’s exhibit, called Vogt’s works “marvels of intricate patterning and layering” and asserted that the artist “tapped into a distinctively American ethos, a system of values that elevated homely materialism to something like a national religion.”

Parker said it best in his conclusion to his catalogue essay: “Fritz Vogt was a homeless man whose great skill was being able to convey the intimate and personal essence of what home meant. I think each one of these rural scenes was a home to Fritz Vogt.”

Parker Hayes passed away unexpectedly at the age of 36 on August 2, 2009. You can view the many tributes to him from people whose lives he touched here. I like to think that he also rescued a lost soul from a century before by painstakingly reconstructing the life and work of Fritz Vogt.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Folk Art: It is what it is

Ah, the definition question. That has vexed folk art scholars for decades, mainly because the material is so varied and has attracted the attention of specialists with very different points of view ranging from community-based folklorists to aesthetically minded art historians. At our museum, we generally take an art historical slant -- not surprising, I guess, since we are an art museum. The following is a working definition I developed for our permanent collection galleries about a decade ago. I'm hoping to get some of my folklife colleagues to submit their own alternative perspectives here. For now, at least, here is what we use at the Fenimore Art Museum to guide our thinking about the folk art collection.

American Folk Art

At the end of the 19th century, a few collectors of Americana became interested in the aesthetic designs of redware, stoneware, glass and painted furniture produced in the colonial and federal eras. By the 1920s, proponents of avant-garde art admired a similar aesthetic between the painters and carvers of this period and the post-abstract art of the early twentieth century. In 1930, Holger Cahill, a curator at the Newark Museum, brought groups of 18th and 19th century American objects together for a ground-breaking exhibition entitled American Primitives. The visual power of the exhibition struck a chord in the American public and the basis for what is now termed American Folk Art was created. Cahill called folk art “the expression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment...It does not come out of an academic tradition passed on by schools, but out of a craft tradition plus the personal quality of the rare craftsman who was an artist.”

At about the same time, contemporary folk artists such as John Kane and William Edmondson achieved widespread acclaim at such prestigious institutions as the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The interest in “modern primitives” grew in the 1940s, due largely to the efforts of dealer/author Sidney Janis and the phenomenal popularity of Grandma Moses. In the post-war decades American Folk Art has come to be recognized as a major contribution to American art and culture.

The artists and artisans who created these works are a disparate group. Historically, some folk artists acquired practical skills through apprenticeship in a craft tradition—such as sign painting or ship carving—and made their living by providing necessary items like portraits or shop signs. Others, particularly women, learned watercolor or needlework in schools and seminaries and created pictures for friends and relatives. A significant number of folk artists in the past and today acquired traditional skills through informal, intergenerational example. Lastly, there are folk artists, especially in this century, who create images that are highly personal through they may draw upon popular culture, memory, and the artist’s particular cultural or ethnic heritage. No matter how or why folk art is produced, it is valued for its beauty and expressive power, for the dynamic aesthetic of linear forms, strong colors, the combination of decorative and utilitarian concerns, and the sense of familiarity it evokes by reflecting everyday life as well as the hopes and dreams of ordinary people. Folk art is produced all over the world, and in every part of the United States. It is the product of people from many different backgrounds, creating art for many different reasons. This exhibition focuses on five major impulses in the creation of folk art:

· Expression of religious beliefs and values
· Decoration for the home
· Documentation of self, family, place, and community
· Expression of patriotism and political beliefs
· Stimulation of commerce

These universal impulses cross cultural boundaries and exemplify basic values shared by many Americans. The sixty pieces in this exhibition relate to one or more of these themes, represent the collective cultural heritage of America, and reflect the contributions of many different people to the mosaic of American culture.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Welcome to the Unconventional Side of American Art!


Welcome to the American Folk Art blog, my first attempt to organize course materials and communications in a coherent online setting. This first post will serve as a brief introduction to me and the course for those of you who have registered to take it, or even for those who are thinking of taking it.

I have been teaching this course since "inheriting" it from Lou Jones in 1984. My own work with american Folk Art goes back further; I've been curating exhibitions and writing articles on the subject sine 1982, when i was a student at CGP and a summer intern at NYSHA. Most of my early work was with 19th-century folk portraiture (see "One Shoe Off" by John Brewster above), but I have done quite a bit with 20th-century folk art (my dissertation was on Ralph Fasanella; see "Festa" below) and am really known as a broad-based scholar.


My wide range of folk art interests influences how I teach this course. Basically, it is a survey of all kinds of American folk art from the 17th century to the present. Throughout the course, you will have the opportunity to follow your own interests in the final project, and you will get to know a wide variety of pieces in our collection through your weekly assignments. The objective is to create an enjoyable learning environment where you gain familiarity with the kinds of folk art you might encounter in almost any museum job. At the end of the semester it is my hope that you will understand and appreciate the contributions of ordinary people to American artistic culture.


Do feel free to post comments or questions here; that way we can all access any information that we share or disseminate. I will be posting my syllabus very soon. Have a great summer!
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