My recent post about our new acquisition of a carved wooden plaque from the Elmira Reformatory caught the attention of several readers who wanted to see other examples of prison art in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. I’ve been meaning to post about a magnificent work that we have from the Auburn Prison (founded in 1816 and renamed Auburn Correctional Facility in the 1970s) in Auburn, New York, so this seems like a great reason to do so.
It is a large (23 ¼” square) and elaborate checkerboard complete with a separate box of 24 checker pieces. Every inch of the piece, no matter how large or small, down to each individual checker, is decorated with wood marquetry inlay in lively patterns. Using hundreds of tiny pieces of a variety of woods, the unknown maker created details such as pinwheels on the checker squares that match those on the checker pieces, a parquet design on the border around the playing surface, and many other fancy border designs around the outer edge of the board.
As far as we know, this piece was made before the 1870s, when it was given to a David Upton, an ancestor of the donors, “in payment of a debt.” It sat in the family’s Rochester, New York attic for more than 70 years. It was given to us in 1977 by Mr. and Mrs. Russell Crosby, in memory of Ruth Upton Morgan and Leah Upton Marlowe.
It is worth noting that the Auburn Prison espoused a system of prisoner reform that included labor and hard work. The “Auburn System,” as it was known, compelled prisoners to work during the day, with the profits of their labors going to support the operation of the prison. The prisoners worked in silence, as the prison rules forbade any conversation. They wore the prison’s signature outfit, the horizontal black and white stripes we now associate universally with convicts everywhere. When they walked from one part of the prison to another the prisoners were compelled to walk in lockstep, one hand on the shoulder of the prisoner in front of each.
Hardly an atmosphere for creative expression. But the Auburn Prison is known for the beauty of its hand-crafted products. Of particular note is the decorative cabinetry that reflects the same skill and care so evident in our checkerboard. Several of these pieces were featured in a 2003 exhibition, “Both Sides of the Wall,” at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art in Auburn. One of them is pictured at left above.
I have written often in this forum about the passion, vision, and commitment of self-taught artists. Our checkerboard, however, forces us to confront the issues of creativity in different ways. How do we account for uncommonly beautiful items made under forced labor? Perhaps the unknown maker of this piece, living in silence and marching in lockstep, poured all of his remaining humanity into the delicate tracery that delights our eyes today.
Paul D'Ambrosio is President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and oversees one of the best folk art collections in the United States. He has organized exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is also Adjunct Professor of American Folk Art in the Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies and the author of numerous books and articles about American folk art.