Wednesday, April 28, 2010
This bust has an odd presence about it. It certainly commands your attention when you are in the gallery or storage area with it. It is life size, and the face is so lifelike and the eyes so intense that it can leave you with the eerie feeling that it is somehow alive. The title suggests that we do not know who the subject was, and for many years I resigned myself to never knowing.
That is, until a 2008 exhibition by Stacy Hollander at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, entitled "Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing." Stacy gathered together a group of Ames carvings (there aren’t many known – only about 12 – but she managed to assemble 9 really terrific pieces) and presented the artist’s work in the context of his tragically short life (you can view the online catalogue to “Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing” here).
Ames worked in western New York State, around Evans in Erie County, carving likenesses of friends and neighbors. He thought enough of his work to list his occupation as “sculpturing” in the 1850 Federal Census (note his fancy carved signature on the underside of the carving). Ames died in 1851 of consumption at the age of just 27.
Despite the lack of biographical information on the artist, Stacy uncovered a stunning new find that, to me, speaks volumes about Ames. It is a photograph of the artist near the end of his life, mallet and chisel in hand, working on a bust that looks like a self portrait. He is surrounded by his sculptures along with other props and, somewhat inexplicably, an unidentified man posing as a sculpted bust at the lower left.
One thing’s for sure: it would take a lot of biographical data to equal the value of this photo in enhancing our understanding of the artist.
Artist unidentified; plate marked Scovills (active c. 1839–1850), New York State, 1849–1851, 3 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 5/8 inches. Collection of John T. Ames, Austin, Texas, loaned in loving memory of John T. and LaVeda R. Ames