Thursday, February 25, 2010

Remembering Vincenzo Ancona

This guest post by my good friend Joseph Sciorra, a noted folklorist and associate director of Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, City University of New York. Joe was instrumental in the Fenimore Art Museum’s acquisition of Vincenzo Ancona’s masterpiece, St. George and the Dragon, pictured at left. This post first appeared in Joe’s fascinating blog, Occhio Contro Occhio. Ancona's St. George and the Dragon will be on view in our folk art gallery beginning on April 1, 2010.

Today is the tenth anniversary of Vincenzo Ancona’s death and I miss him tremendously. He was a man I met in 1979 as the “subject” of my nascent research on Italian-American folklore and folklife, but who became more than just an “ethnographic informant.”

We collaborated in the documentation and presentation of his Sicilian-language poetry and his wire tableaux in a published article, a book, and several exhibitions. The links below lead to various representations of his work. (His self-professed masterpiece, “St. George and the Dragon” is now in the permanent collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.) He helped my fledgling career more than I impacted his life.

That he shared parts of his life and his artistry with me is a gift I will always treasure. I visited him frequently in the basement kitchen of his Gravesend, Brooklyn home. I knew his late wife, Virginia, his children, his grandchildren, and even his great-grand children. My wife and I stayed with him in Castellammare del Golfo (Trapani province) during our 1985 trip and he showed us Scopello where he set off for the tonnara, or tuna fishing. I still have the olive branch basket he wove during our stay in Sicily.
On the tenth anniversary of his death, Arba Sicula is republishing Vincenzo’s bilingual collection, Malidittu la lingua/Damned Language (1990), that Anna L. Chairetakis (now Anna Lomax Wood) and I edited. The book will contain a CD of Vincenzo reciting his poetry. In addition, my article “Locating Memory: Longing, Place, and Autobiography in Vincenzo Ancona’s Sicilian Poetry” will appear this year in the book Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives (Fordham University Press). Vincenzo Ancona lives on through the many gifts he left us.

Top to bottom:

Vincenzo Ancona, St. George and the Dragon, ca. 1975, salvaged telephone wire and wood, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N. Y., Gift of Vincenzo Ancona.

Vincenzo Ancona, Castel del Golfo Social Club, Brooklyn, 1987. Photo by Martha Cooper

Joseph Sciorra, 1980

Joseph Sciorra, Anna Lomax Wood, Maria Portuese, Vincenzo Ancona, Zulma Ortiz-Fuentes,
Castel del Golfo Social Club, Brooklyn, 1987.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Little Treasures Out on View April 1

Great things, so they say, sometimes come in small packages. This is especially true for folk art miniatures, which are often exquisite examples of the skillful handling of brush or pen. These works are difficult to exhibit for a variety of reasons: they can be impossible to light well; and being small, they need to be secure. We are very fortunate this year to have received a generous gift of a first-rate exhibition case designed especially for miniatures from one of our trustees, Katharine Booth, and her husband Robert. The case is upright, allowing the viewer to get close to the artwork, and it features its own interior lighting. It was my pleasant job to fill the case with appropriate miniatures for public display beginning on April 1st.

Two of the gems slated for inclusion in this case are small works in sepia wash on paper by a little known artist named Juliet Miles. I included these works in a 1999 exhibition on New York State Folk Art that we had here at the Fenimore Art Museum, but was unable to uncover much information about them. One (measuring about 4 ½” square) depicts two women on horseback and is titled “Ladies Riding.” The other (9” x 7”) is a likeness of an unknown woman next to a floral arrangement and titled simply “The Portrait.”

We do know that Miss Miles lived in Schoharie, New York, and began painting and drawing miniatures in about 1830. It is apparent that she painted for her own amusement, executing fruit and flower pieces as well as occasional portraits, such as can be seen here. We do not know any more than that.

Still, Miles’ virtuosity is apparent in the confident and precise brush and pen work in both pictures. She was obviously skilled in calligraphy too, judging by the titling of the portrait below the picture. Works such as these were often done for friends and family rather than for sale. Women in particular traded artworks for inclusion in friendship albums or as tokens of affection.

Someday, I think, we will find more of Juliet Miles’ work out there. In the meantime, you will be able to see these pieces better than ever before in our new exhibition case, and your close inspection will be rewarded with unprecedented access to some of our best works in miniature.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ironing Out a Mystery

Some paintings have research files, others have grab-bags. We keep any and all correspondence and research notes on virtually all of our works of art, and they are a treasure trove of information. Sometimes. When the research goes well, the file can be thorough, cogent, and very helpful. When research is scarce, the file can be painfully thin. When research is scarce but opinions abound, watch out. Such is the case with this enigmatic painting in the Fenimore Art Museum collection.

It has for years been called simply “The Ironers.” Executed about 1845 (judging from the style of dresses and hairdos), the painting measures 30” x 41” and is oil on canvas. That is where consensus ends. Although the subject matter appears to be quite straightforward – a man overseeing four ladies ironing laundry on a large table – the range of theories is remarkable.

In the months after this painting appeared in the magazine “American Heritage” along with the rest of the Gunn Collection we acquired in 1960, several knowledgeable persons wrote to us claiming to know exactly what was going on in the work.

H. W. Kroeger felt that it was a commercial laundry, with linens on drying racks at the left, which were collected in a basket (at lower right) from which the ladies took their linens and ironed them on the table. Once ironed, the fabric was folded neatly on the smaller table at the far right. He did wonder where the source of heat for the irons came from, and whether the multiple doorways were cupboards.

Cecil D. Clayton agreed that it was a commercial laundry, and felt that the man was the owner or foreman checking a laundry list of customers’ complaints (he has a scroll of paper on the table in front of him), or that perhaps he was a customer checking his own list. This letter made me wonder why anyone in their right mind would commission a formal portrait of their business with the most prominent figure being an irate customer.

Mrs. George Legeza, Jr. was absolutely certain that the scene was painted immediately after the birth of a baby. The women (two matrons and two younger women) were pitching in to help with the new load of ironing, and the man was a doctor, about to sign the birth certificate in his right hand. She even knew exactly which of the doors in the background led to the baby’s room and which led to other upstairs bedrooms!

The file does include a most helpful letter from a previous owner of the painting, a George Livesay of Providence, Rhode Island, who sold the painting to the Gunns. He recalled that it had a molding at its base that seemed to indicate that it had been used as a trade sign for a commercial laundry.

Our former Director Lou Jones, a folklorist by trade, always favored the most outlandish explanations for anything. His favorite theory for this painting? To quote from his 1960 catalogue of the Gunn Collection: “this is a Mormon inventor of a new dickey who has married two sets of sisters and has them all out in the laundry proving the value of his latest creation.”

Unfortunately, he admits, “there isn’t a factual leg for this beautiful theory to stand on.”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Troubled Valentines

I admit that I’ve been a very bad blogger this week, owing mainly to the pressing deadline for the publication of the exhibition catalogue for the traveling exhibition “Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection,” which opens at the Cleveland Museum of Art on March 7. In between rounds of proofreading I was thinking of posts that might be appropriate for this Valentines Day weekend, and recalled one of my favorite couples from the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection.

This pair of pastel portraits was done in about 1790, probably in Connecticut. They are a memorable pair for a variety of reasons. It’s amazing they ever survived for us to see them, first of all. Pastel is a delicate medium, chalky and prone to falling to the bottom of the frame if bumped too hard. These portraits were among those treasures found in the barn of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn of Newtonville, Massachusetts, after their death in 1958. I wrote about the Gunn Collection in a previous post. Suffice it to say that an old New England barn is not a safe place to store pastels, or any works on paper.

Our New England couple is memorable for another reason. Look at their faces. Yes, it was a hard life in the early Republic, but these two go beyond tough. Their faces are decided uncomfortable, troubled, anxious. Turbulent. The rendering of their faces is, well, maybe a little too honest. Trained artists had skills and training that allowed them to flatter their sitters. Make them look a decade younger, a few pounds lighter, and better looking. The folk artist’s approach is, by contrast, called “warts and all.”

It was the turbulence in the faces, though, that lead me to the likely artist for this pair. There was another artist, an untrained limner, or portrait painter, working in Connecticut in the late 18th century who was known to capture the angst of his sitters in vivid facial expression such as these. His name was Winthrop Chandler, and an example of his work, a 1770 portrait of the Reverend Ebenezer Gay, can be seen here. You can see the similarity to our pair.
It is a shame that we don’t know the identity of our couple. In some ways, though, it gives us the freedom to call them whatever we want. The preferred name, since the late 1950s when they were acquired, is The Neurotic New England Couple. You won’t see this on any of our labels; it’s an oral tradition carried on only in my gallery tours. No one ever argues with the diagnosis.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Black Barbie Comes to Cooperstown

The marketing staff at Keepsake Ornaments, a division of Hallmark Cards, was in brainstorming mode. They wanted to attract more Black costumers, and were floating ideas about different collectible Christmas ornaments that would appeal to a black clientele. The big idea that was being tossed around, an African American Barbie doll ornament, did not sit well with Marketing Strategist Kyra Hicks. Black Santa Claus, maybe. Christmas angels with different skin tones, maybe. But Black Barbie?

Kyra Hicks was more than a marketer. She was and is an acclaimed quilter. Following the meeting, she channeled her emotions into the creation of a remarkable quilt. This quilt was one of the major pieces featured in the Fenimore Art Museum’s exhibition “Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art.” At the close of the exhibition, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to send it back to the artist. So we bought it.

Hicks uses the medium of fabric in traditional, yet innovative ways to create pieces layered with rich narratives which reinterpret ideologies of popular culture. Hicks represents an American popular icon in her quilt Black Barbie (1996). The quilt features a black version of the original Barbie (1959). The use of text in this piece plays an integral role in communicating messages to the viewer. “Barbie” is scripted in its signature style across the top of the quilt, with “American’s Doll” written underneath. The choice to script “Barbie” in the traditional style enables viewers to instantly connect with the piece as their cultural memory is stimulated.

The bottom of the quilt, however, changes everything. It reads “Was never intended for me.”

Though the artist wrote these words from an African American woman’s perspective, this phrase has the ability to apply to many different women. The legacy of Barbie has impacted women of all shapes, sizes, and colors who feel they do not fit into society’s ideal framework. Painted behind the bottom text are five repeating lines of “Black Barbie has no name” This portion of the piece is not visible from across a room and encourages the viewer to further analyze the quilt. Hicks considers this one of her nuances, explaining that she creates multiple layers of messaging.

Black Barbie is a powerful piece which addresses issues of body image and society’s obsession with beauty. Standards of “beauty” are dictated in the media and in popular culture, whether they are based on race or class, on a local, national or international level. Hicks’ reinterpretation of the traditional Barbie offers and different view of beauty.

The quilt presents a story that transcends race and class boundaries, and has the ability to unite women of multiple backgrounds. Hicks explains that she tries to work through whatever she is feeling in a way that is universal. The reinterpretation of a popular iconic fictional woman enabled Hicks to present her personal emotions in a universal form.

Black Barbie will be on view in our folk art galleries beginning on April 1st, making its debut as part of our permanent collection. I have no doubt that it will have an iconic presence in the museum for many, many years. You won’t, however, be seeing it as a Christmas card any time soon.

This post was co-written by Cara Bramson of the Cooperstown Graduate Program as part of my elective course in American folk Art. To find more of Kyra Hicks’ work, as well as her thoughts on quilting, see her blog, Black Threads.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mural Painting in Rural New York

Sometimes, when the grandest decorative traditions of Europe are picked up by American rural artisans, the results can be striking.

The painting of scenic wall murals has a long history in Western culture, dating from the hunting scenes in prehistoric caves and the many murals of pharonic Egypt and Classical Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages, noble families hung large woven tapestries depicting historical and mythological scenes on their walls for decoration as well as insulation. By the 18th century, printed papers were made that continued the tradition of scenic views on interior walls and became extremely popular.

In the United States, scenic wallpaper had to be imported from England or France. It was relatively expensive and difficult to obtain. A few folk artists in New York and New England were quick to respond to the fashion and produced hand-painted landscapes in oil directly onto dry plaster to compete with imported wallpaper. The style flourished in the 1820s and 1830s.

The walls in this post (now at The Farmers’ Museum, across the road from the Fenimore Art Museum; see before view above and after restoration at right) were removed from the second floor of a house in Springfield, New York, eleven miles from Cooperstown. Ezra Carroll, a trader, and his father John purchased the house in 1815. The Carroll home was located on the Cherry Valley Turnpike, a well-traveled east-west route, near the store Ezra operated. John died in 1822 or 1823 but Ezra lived until 1844, and it was presumably he who commissioned itinerant artist William Price to paint the walls of the house.

The walls were removed and the Carroll House demolished in 1957. The Winterthur Museum purchased the murals in the central stair hall. Conservators stabilized, removed and transported the walls to Cooperstown and to Winterthur in stages. The murals were covered with protective wallpaper and insulation board and braced with 2 x 4s. The wall sections were then slipped on to steel channels, picked up by crane, and loaded on to trucks. Conservators reversed the process and mounted the murals on a new backing for display.

Very little is known about the artist William Price. He signed and dated the Carroll House walls but no record of him living in the Springfield area survives. There is a William H. Price listed as a painter in The New York City Directory for 1844 and 1845. He may also be a veteran of the War of 1812—note the depiction of Commander Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie on the front wall (at left), but research continues in identifying the artist.

In painting the vivid and somewhat fantastic murals he may have tried to duplicate elaborate French wallpapers, which also depicted landscapes and were very popular in the early 19th century. Price’s sources for his scenic views may have included both the local landscape and more exotic inspiration. The December 27, 1830 issue of Cooperstown’s Freeman’s Journal announces the pending publication of the Reverend Mr. Stewart’s account of his visit to the South Seas in 1829-30. Price may also have been influenced by literary sources such as Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, as evidenced by the portrait on the wall to the right (seen below, between the windows), which towers over a tiny gentleman in the foreground.

It’s hard to believe that stunning examples of 19th-century folk art like these can fall victim to changing tastes, but they did. Every so often, homeowners looking to redecorate their early 19th-century houses begin to strip away layers of old wallpaper and find traces of one of these lost murals underneath. When that happens, it’s best to stop and consult a conservator to avoid damaging the paint. You can find one at the American Institute for Conservation website.

Your second call, of course, should be to me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bertha Halozan: A Folk Artist on Broadway

Most of the great folk art finds have been made in places lost and forgotten, dusty back roads or out-of-the-way antique shops across the country. Imagine, then, walking down Broadway in midtown Manhattan and coming across a street vendor who, instead of peddling hot dogs or pretzels, was showing her paintings to passerby.

Such was the case with Bertha Halozan. Bertha was born in Austria and emigrated to the United States in 1956. She made her way in her new country by working in hospitals as a physical therapist and running a beauty shop. She was also a singer, and gave several performances at Carnegie Hall in the 1960s. With favorable reviews in the media and numerous friends, Bertha had built a wonderful life for herself in the city.

That all came to a halt in 1978, when Bertha suffered a heart attack and stroke that left her incapacitated. To lift her spirits, a friend gave her canvas and paints. As she thought about what to paint, Bertha recalled her many visits to Liberty Island where she would lay on the grass and look up in adoration at the Statue of Liberty. It was her favorite retreat, and the great statue became a patron saint of sorts to her.

So in 1979 Bertha began to pay homage to Lady Liberty on bright canvases with lively brushwork, always including the phrase, “We love Statue of Liberty/There are still some good people living in this world.” Around the iconic figure of Liberty (depicted in Heidi fashion with blue eyes and pigtails, and marked by the original date of completion, 10-1889; of course the correct date is 1886) she includes birds, swimmers, Austrian dancers, baseball players, and boats; all blessed with grace and freedom of motion that her stroke took from her. She even includes the Goodyear blimp as a way of saying that every year is a good year if you are alive.

When I met Bertha in the early 1990s, she was living as a long-term resident in the Woodward Hotel on Broadway and 55th Street, and spending her days pushing her small cart loaded with paintings around midtown to show to whoever was interested. When the police would try to close her down as an illegal peddler, she would point out that she was not, in fact, selling anything.

What she was peddling was much more precious; she was sharing her life and her view of the world, the basis for her art. On the reverse of each painting Bertha took great care to paste a series of clippings about her career as a singer. In one of these, the New York Times critic proclaims, “Bertha A. Halozan, Mezzo, Has a Style Peculiarly Her Own.” When we show the painting I bought from her for the Fenimore Art Museum, we use a special exhibit case that allows visitors to go around and see the reverse. That way they can understand how, on opposite sides of each canvas Bertha has given us her two lives, before and after the stroke, with the same forthright, intense style that bespeaks her desire to share her best days and offer thanks for each new one.
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