Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More Treasures from the Katcher Collection

Rachel Ann Maria (Overbaugh) Ostrander and Titus Ostrander
Attributed to Ammi Phillips (1788-1868)
Saugerties, New York, circa 1834-1835
Oil on canvas, 58 x 44 inches, original veneered frame

This is one of the greatest folk portraits ever painted. Ammi Phillips was one of the most successful and prolific portrait painters of the nineteenth century, plying his trade in New York’s Hudson River Valley and Western New England for more than half a century.  This striking, elegant likeness of Rachel Ostrander and her son Titus is his largest known work and generally considered one of his best.  The beauty and timeless serenity of the image belies the adversity faced by the principal sister in the decade following the completion of this painting.  Rachel Overbaugh married Stephen Nottingham in 1827, when she was just seventeen.  They had Titus shortly thereafter, and another child just after this portrait was painted (interesting to note how Phillips helped her hide her pregnancy).  When Stephen died in 1840 Rachel married her first cousin, Solomon Overbaugh in 1842.  Their child Peter was one year old when Solomon died in 1844, and Rachel married her third husband, Captain William Teunis Swart, in 1846.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Flying Fame

Fame is fleeting. This magnificent weathervane from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana (made about 1890 and measuring 30" x 31")  gets that message across in the plainest terms possible. 

The Greek Goddess and allegorical figure of Fame, trumpeting a triumph and bestowing a laurel wreath, was actually a rare subject for commercial weathervane manufacturers of the late nineteenth century. The delicate figure was undoubtedly difficult to execute and has only a limited number of appropriate placements. It simply wouldn't work on a cow barn. 

This weathervane is one of the only four known examples featuring Fame, and – despite the fact that Fame is a winged figure – the only ope depicted in a flying pose. Its maker is unknown, although the weathervane was probably the product of a major shop such as E.G. Washburne & Co., J.L. Mott Iron Works, and J.W. Fiske, all of New York. Attribution of these weathervanes is made difficult by the standard practice of borrowing designs or buying and reusing parts. 

This weathervane is said to have been found on a building possibly used as a preparatory school for girls by a Catholic diocese in the Boston area. Since learning this fact I've been trying to imagine what the Nuns would say to the girls in relation to the weathervane. Was it aspirational? Or a warning about the pursuit of fame? Did the weathervane predate the school altogether?

Regardless of its original context, this weathervane is a killer piece, and its your to enjoy in our galleries for the rest of the year.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sign of the Times

Here's another great piece from the Katcher Collection of Americana that we will feature in the Fenimore Art Museum's upcoming exhibition, Inspired Traditions (see information about our related symposium on October 1 here). It's an exuberant sign proudly displaying its owner’s name and, perhaps, his highly abstracted likeness. From the looks of it, you would think that the business was thriving. The historical record tells a quite different story.

Morris Lord (1794-1849) inherited a portion of his father’s estate and for the time enjoyed financial success in real estate in and around Parsonfield, Maine. By the 1820s he briefly owned a store, presumably the business advertised here. Lord suffered financial losses by 1840, possibly as a result of the Panic of 1837, and moved with his family to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he ran a boarding house. Lowell was a thriving mill town where thousands of young women migrated to take jobs in the factories, and thus boarding houses were common. It was a place where many tradesmen and merchants found some measure of financial success. 

Our Mr. Lord, alas, was not one of those who thrived in Lowell. When he died of cholera in 1849, his death certificate indicates that he was a laborer. This trade sign, therefore, documents an all-too-brief shining moment in a business career that had more than its share of setbacks. The bright side: because the store was not in business for very long, the sign here did not suffer long exposure to the elements, and thus survives in great condition for us to enjoy. I cannot imagine what Mr. Lord would think of this as his legacy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Story Unfolds

I was just down in our galleries and had to share photos of our new quilt exhibition, "Unfolding Stories: Culture and Tradition in American Quilts," which is currently being installed for a September 24 opening. It is just stunning. We have not had our quilts out in any numbers since our 1996 exhibit "Uncommon Quilts." We did send about thirty five of these gems to Tokyo in 2004, where they were the stars of the International Great Quilt Festival at the Tokyo Dome and were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. But nothing of note since then.

This fall we will have about two dozen quilts displayed in "Unfolding Stories," a show that explains their cultural context in a variety of ways. Our guest curator for this show is quilt scholar Jacqueline Atkins, who curated our Tokyo exhibition. Take a good look at these installation shots, and if you can make it to Cooperstown before the end of the year, come see them in person.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Truth Comes Out on October First

It seems like every time I delve into a folk art painting the stories it reveals completely reshape the experience of viewing the artwork. This transformation is even more radical when on occasion I am asked to write an entire essay on a piece. Such was the case with a 1740 portrait of Annetje Kool, a young Dutch-American woman painted by Pieter Vanderlyn in the mid-Hudson Valley town of Esopus.

Annetje looks so unassuming. Looking at her placid likeness, you would hardly guess that she lived on contested ground; the frontier of two great European empires.What secrets is she hiding?

At the time of her wedding, Annetje had a six-year-old child by an unnamed father. We don't know whatever happened to the child, who is not mentioned in any period records.

The artist, Pieter Vanderlyn, has some secrets of his own. What connection did he have to the Dutch Slave Trade in Africa and the Caribbean? Why did he start preaching in the 1730s? Why were his sermons illegal?

Pieter's grandson, John Vanderlyn, was one of America's greatest history painters. What long-forgotten story from his childhood likely inspired one of his most famous paintings, Marius Amidst the Ruins of Carthage?

Unlike scores of other posts that I've presented here over the past two years, the answers to these questions will have to wait. I will give them in person at a unique new Symposium to be held here at the Fenimore Art Museum on October 1. Information about the Symposium can be found here. You can even register online.

This Americana Symposium highlights the stunning collection of American folk art assembled over thirty years by Jan Katcher, a retired pediatric radiologist. We will exhibit the collection at the museum from October 1 - December 31.

If you live in the Central New York area, please try to come. We will have a wide range of speakers who are leaders in the field, presenting on topics ranging from Shaker artworks to Jewish folk art to painted furniture to weathervanes. If you cannot come, please pass the word on to others that might be interested.

I do hope you can make it here on October 1 to hear some remarkable stories unfold. In the coming days I will post more pictures from the Katcher Collection to give you a sense of what you can see and hear about at the museum this fall.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sulton Rogers

Sometimes you have to drive 1500 miles to find something worthwhile in your own backyard. Back in the early 1990s I took a road trip south to Georgia and Alabama in search of contemporary folk art. I had a knowledgeable friend in Atlanta to helped me navigate the backroads of the rural South, where I had never ventured before. It was fascinating, as you might imagine, but one of the great finds took place toward the end of the trip as I was about to head home.

My friend and I were talking about folk artists worth pursuing, and he pointed to an image in a recent book and said, "you ought to try and find this guy." It was an artist originally from Mississippi who settled in Syracuse, New York, about an hour from my home in Utica. His name was memorable: Sulton Rogers; and his works were unforgettable, grotesque figures with twisted grins and crooked noses.

I managed to find Sultan by asking around, and visited him at his home. He was in the southern part of the city. A friend described how to get there but declined to accompany me, saying it was "not my neighborhood." With the prospect of finding a great folk artist, I went anyway.

It was a decision I won't ever regret. Sulton was very friendly, and there was little about the area that seemed threatening besides the general run-down look of some of the houses. I remember entering Sulton's home and being surprised at how dark he kept the entryway and the living room. The first time I went in he introduced me to some people who, I realized suddenly, were sitting right in front of me. We went into his basement, where he did most of his carving.

Sulton dscribed how he got started. He came fron an artistic family in Mississippi; his father was a carpenter and whittler and, if I'm remembering correctly, his mother was a great quilter. Sulton was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1922 and settled in Syracuse in 1952. From about 1970 he worked for Allied Chemical, where his job of monitoring equipment left him with time on his hands. That's when he started to carve in earnest.

Sulton's favorite subject was people, especially if they had expressive facial features that he could caricature. He did these constantly, and the results are hysterical, as you can see from these examples. Sulton's work station at Allied was full of these carvings, and they were popular with coworkers.

Too popular, in fact. After people kept stealing them, Sulton had an idea. He started carving his figures in coffins. Nobody touched those. In fact, he even had the bright idea to leave the legs off the figure so that he could put valuables or money in the empty space in the coffin.

We have several of Sulton's figures, including one in a coffin, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. And you know, as I write this, it occurs to me that I have never checked the empty space to see if Sulton left anything inside. I'm not sure I ever will.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Electra Havemeyer Webb on Paul's Shelburne-Fenimore Scorecard

Two years ago today I blogged about a visit to the Shelburne Museum, which has one of the great folk art collections in America, assembled by Electra Havemeyer Webb. You can read my take on the collection in my post from August 24, 2009. At the time I compiled a personal scorecard comparing our collection with theirs from my point of view. Here are the results as I saw it:

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

The gist of it is: we are better in paintings; they are better in sculpture.

Well, now I have a "response" from Mrs. Webb herself. Posthumously, of course, since she passed away in late 1960 (just a couple of months after our benefactor, Stephen C. Clark, died). In a letter written to Edith Gregor Halpert, who ran the Downtown Gallery in New York and sold American folk art since the 1920s, Electra reveals her reaction to our collection from a visit to Cooperstown. The letter, which came to my attention from my colleague at Shelburne, Jackie Oak, is dated October 8, 1954 and reads as follows: 

"….I have just returned from Cooperstown and, except for maybe one or two pieces of sculpture, I am very satisfied with our collection…but I do think they excel in the paintings in variety and class…."

Great minds think alike. Thank you, Mrs. Webb.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

(Folk) Art in Bloom

Today is the Fenimore Art Museum's Art in Bloom event, and the galleries look so good I had to share a few samples from the folk art gallery. Art in Bloom is all about using floral arrangements to interpret art. We are very lucky to have the local Lake and Valley Garden Club to undertake this effort for us. They got together 20 different arrangements that are all on view today and tomorrow. The one above is an interpretation of our great Grandma Moses painting, "Sugaring Off." You can see a variety of ways that the floral artists use color and composition to make their own versions of the paintings.

This is a bouquet in honor of our Washington and Liberty window shade, the subject of one of my previous posts.

This one interprets a terrific crazy quilt in the gallery.

And this one is a lively rendition of our folk portrait, "Picking Flowers," by Samuel Miller.

Enjoy the flowers on this beautiful weekend!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hidden Patterns

I swear that none of these weird coincidences happened until I started blogging. A few months ago I took a call from a gentleman who was a descendant of J. W. Fiske, the famous 19th-century weathervane maker from New York. He had some old weathervane patterns from the shop and wanted to know if we wanted them. We did, of course, but he was moving and needed to get rid of them quickly. So there was no way we could take them in time. It was a big disappointment.

This past week I was on vacation on Martha's Vineyard and remembered a recommendation from a former folk art student of mine to stop in to the weathervane shop of Tuck and Holland in Vineyard Haven. I had tried to stop in last year but the shop was closed. Hoping for better luck, I went to the shop to see a weathervane craftsman at work.

I was greeted by Anthony Holland, who I learned was one of the few craftspeople making weathervanes in a traditional manner in the United States. He showed me around thes shop, and his work was fantastic. I began taking pictures of the crowded workspace and a pile of metal underneath a shelf caught my eye. I asked what it was. "Oh," Anthony said, "those are really great. They're some old J. W. Fiske patterns I got from the original maker's grandson." I had found the patterns, or they had found me.

He showed me the patterns. There was an eagle, a cow, and Fiske's famous horse, Ethan Allen. Anthony told me of his plans to recreate some vanes using the Fiske patterns. He's good enough to do them justice. It actually nice to know that these artifacts had found a good home, and that they were in the hands of a craftsman who had the skills to bring them back to life. I'm looking forward to seeing the results.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ralph's Take on Rembrandt

Ralph Fasanella had trouble painting hands. A lot of trained artists do too, so it is not surprising that a union organizer who turned to drawing suddenly at the age of 40 would struggle with hands early in his career. But he did have something that proved better than years of formal training: he believed that he was an artist and that what he was doing - painting the lives of working people - was a calling that deserved his complete attention and all-consuming passion.

And that made him react when anyone suggested that his paintings weren't up to snuff. He said that he was painting "felt space," not real space. His people and the urban settings he placed them in were not realistic in the purest sense of the word, but they sang with spirit and emotion. As Ralph said, "I may paint flat, but I don't think flat."

His most memorable quote, and the one that says the most about him, occurred very early in his artistic career, when someone told him that his hands looked like sticks. He ought to study Rembrandt's hands, they said, in order to get it right.

His response is priceless: "Fuck you and Rembrandt! My name is Ralph!"

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Family Visit

It was my great pleasure this week to see the family of Joseph Schoell (visiting from Georgia) and (with my colleague Erin Richardson) show them the sculptures we have in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. I wrote about my experiences with Joseph in my previous post, "An American Dream in Sheet Metal and Paint." The family group included Agnes Schoell Freas, the artist's daughter (in light blue, above; she is named for her mother, the artist's wife), her son David and daughter-in-law Theresa, and their children Alex and Adam.

I don't write enough about folk artists' families. They are really the unsung heroes of this body of work, and their devotion to the visions and labor of the artists among them is what carries on much of the legacies we enjoy. They are as important as any museum staff. As a case in point, I discovered that the Schoell family home is still preserved, with many of Joseph's original sculptures still in place on the front lawn.

As we looked at Joseph's Statue of Liberty, it was particularly heartwarming to hear Agnes explain to her grandchildren the hardships of Joseph's life in Europe and his gratitude for everything this country had to offer. The sculpture was, to them, much more than a visual delight; it was part of who they are. You can see from the photo that we asked Alex and Adam to hold the plaque Joseph made commemorating the anniversaries of the Statue of Liberty and of his coming to America. It seemed like an appropriate way to honor the hopes and dreams the artist undoubtedly carried with him across the ocean. I like to think that Joseph would have been pleased and proud.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Keeping the Faith

I've seen cathedrals and temples large and small over the years, but the Faith Mission is the one of the most memorable churches I've ever been in. It wasn't hard to find; in a non-descript neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia, the small domestic structure that held the church stood out by virtue of the large painted images of Jesus and assorted angels surrounded by quotes from scripture all over the exterior facing the street.

Not even the jubilant facade, howver, could prepare you for what was inside.

Anderson Johnson was born in Virigina in 1915, the son of a sharecropper. One day, when he was eight years old, he was hoeing a field when he had a vision of God holding out a large, leather-bound book to him. He took that as a sign that he had been called to preach. And preach he did for much of his adult life, using his spiritual fervor and musical talent (specifically his steel guitar) to bring people to Jesus.

Johnson moved back to Newport News in the 1970s to live with his mother, and after her death in 1984 he finally had the chance to create his own church. And so, in that same house, the Faith Mission was born. It was at this time that Johnson put another of his talents into service to Jesus by creating visionary works of art.

It wasn't hard to decipher Johnson's vision. When I visited him in the early 1990s I was initially astonished by the painted facade of the Mission. When I went inside, however, I was completely bowled over. The whole first floor of the house had been gutted to make one large space, with makeshift pews on the front side and an altar and lectern on the back. But that wasn't all. Not by a longshot.

The makeshift church was full of people; bright-eyed, well-dressed, and eager for the Bishop Anderson Johnson's sermon. But they weren't actual people. They were painted portraits by Johnson, smiling, attentive visages on cardboard or plywood, lining each and every pew and even hanging from the rafters. An audience of every speaker's dreams. And a congregation worthy of Johnson's abilities.

Reverend Johnson himself was a delight to meet and converse with. He was not a fundamentalist nutcase. He was friendly and soft-spoken and humbled by his calling. I asked how many parishioners he had. "I've got five that I can count on." That didn't keep him from his committment to preach. We ended up buying several pieces for the Fenimore Art Museum, including a lectern (above) and a painting of an angel (below).

The only time that I saw him upset was on another visit a year or two later. Reverend Johnson had been having some problems with his neighbors. Since he had become well-known as a folk artist, scores of people - strangers to the neighborhood - were coming to see the Faith Mission and buy art. The neighbors accused him of drug dealing. As he explained the situation to me, he got angry, ripped open a decorative container he had made to show me there was nothing inside, and yelled "I don't know nothing about no dope dealer!" It was extremely upsetting to see this good man have to defend himself.

But the memory reminds me, as I think of Reverend Johnson's beautiful people, how wide is the gulf between the world as it is and as it ought to be. Anderson Johnson did what he could to narrow that divide, in a small corner of the world that desparately needed his presence.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Loaded for Bear

It's very hard to paint ferocity, especially on a small scale. But this doesn't keep self-taught artists from trying and, as usual, we are the beneficiaries of their efforts. Here is another example.

This small watercolor, about 8 x 10 inches, was found in Binghamton, New York, a small city along the Pennsylvania border. It is called, for obvious reasons, "The Bear Hunters." Actually, I'm not overly fond of that title; this doesn't look like a bear hunt to me. Rather it appears that the two gentlemen and their dog have encountered a bear unexpectedly. The man in orange seems to be raising his axe in self defense. I'm not a hunter, but I'm pretty sure you don't consciously hunt bears with an axe. The other man, in blue, also seems to be in a defensive posture, holding his rifle sideways as if to deflect a blow.

The charm in this piece lies in the bared teeth of the dog and the bear, and in particular the problems in scale that the artist had with the latter. This particular diminutive bear does not seem to pose much of a threat to two armed men and a dog.

Unless there's a mama nearby. Enjoy the watercolor and have a great weekend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Mysterious Miniature Altar

Quite a number of years ago I was walking through the exhibition "Expressions of Trust" at the America Folk Art Museum in New York when an unusual piece caught my eye. It was a sculpture in the form of a carved box with a wood frame and plexiglas sides that allowed you to see inside. In the center of the box was a carved altar with a crucifix surrounded by colorful plastic flowers. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it intrigued me in that it seemed like the kind of folk art you might find at a local flea market or consignment shop. It was strong in its simplicity and in the depth of the devotion expressed by the obviously Catholic, working class artist.

When I read the label I was stunned. It was made by a priest from Uitca, where I live. And judging from the artist's dates, he was still alive. I took down all of the information on the label and resolved to look into it further upon returning home. With any luck, there would be an opportunity to meet an interesting local folk artist and perhaps see more pieces.

When I got back home I took out the phone book and looked up the name of the priest. He was right there in the white pages. Delighted at my luck, I picked up the phone and dialed. A male voice answered. I said, "Is this Father so-and-so?" "Yes, it is." Introducing myself, I continued, "I saw your piece at the American Folk Art Museum and really liked it." "What piece?" "The sculpture of the miniature altar." "I don't know what you're talking about." We dropped the conversation quickly and got off the phone.

Well, that was awkward. Unsure of what went wrong (some folk artists just don't want any attention, which is understandable) I just dropped the matter and forgot about the sculpture. Some years later, during a busy summer day at the Fenimore Art Museum, the front desk called to tell me that there was a young couple that wanted to see a curator. I went down to meet them, of course. They were from Barneveld, a small town about a half hour north of Utica. They told me that they had a piece of folk art by a relative of the woman. When they showed me a photo my eyes went wide. It was a miniature altar nearly identical to the one I had seen years earlier.

"Wow, is this one of those altars made by that priest from Utica?" The couple looked at each other, confused. "No, this is by a carpenter, Leo Liedtke," the woman said, "my father." So it was father, Leo. Not Father Leo. Delighted to find out the truth, I gladly accepted the piece into the collection and started to do some research on Liedtke, who had passed away years ago.

There wasn't a lot to find. Leo had lived an ordinary life in a house about a mile from where I live now. He was a steady, reliable carpenter and father as well as, I'm sure, a steady and reliable parishioner. And yet, in that ordinary house he quietly turned his manual skills toward the creation of these small altars. To my knowledge they were never meant to be exhibited outside his home. He did do one large piece, of the Forbidden City in China, but it was the smaller religious works that held all the charm and personal meaning.

Leo Liedtke may never be considered a great or important folk artist, but his work - and the memorable way it came to me - stands for something larger. In expressing beliefs and values shared by many in his community, Liedtke affirmed his individual existence. His folk art was an profound expression of self in a world where sameness was the watchword.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

The Little Farmer

Here is a small watercolor, about 4" x 7", that I have always liked. It was purchased from a landlady in New Bedford, Massachusetts by Jean Lipman in the 1940s, with little or no history as to who painted it and where it was from. It has been in the Fenimore Art Museum collection since 1950.

It depicts a small farmstead with a nice house (possibly stone with tile shingles), a well, and a farmer holding a two-pronged pitchfork and walking a dog on a leash. That's about all we know, believe it or not. The painting has always been called "The Amish Farmer" owing to the distinctive beard and hat of the man, but that is a tenuous identification at best.

All that aside, the little watercolor has out-sized charm, doesn't it? We displayed it in our folk art gallery last year and it received considerable attention. I was hoping that someone would provide some clue to its origin, but, alas, it remains one of our anonymous treasures.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Stolen Kiss on the Mohawk River

Every time I travel north on Interstate 87 from Albany, New York, to the Adirondacks, I pass over the well-known "Twin Bridges," technically the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge which spans the Mohawk River just a few miles north of the city. The bridge offers a nice view of an idyllic riverside with cottages nestled along the shore and people swimming and boating. It never occurred to me until recently that just underneath the bridge is the site of a old ferry that figures prominently in one of my favorite paintings here in the Fenimore Art Museum.

Dunsbach's Ferry Across the Mohawk is a painting done in the 1890s by an O. B. Scouten that depicts the ferry operation in astonishing detail. The artist shows the landmark buildings on the near shore, including a house on the left built by Killian Van De Burg in 1718, and a tavern on the right operated at the time by John Sheffer, known as "Dutch John." The train in the background hints at the importance of the Ferry, as it connected travelers to and from Albany to the Troy and Schenectady line of the New York Central Railroad.

But it is the figures and their activities in this painting that has always intrigued me. In the foreground you see farmers with a hay wagon alongside city folk waiting for the ferry, and at the right there is a woman feeding chickens and boys swimming in the river. On the ferry itself (detail below) the artist has depicted two ferry workers, one manning the rope and the other pulling the ferry along the guidelines. There is also a two-horse wagon with a well-dressed couple.

Take a good look at the couple. The man's attention is not focused on his companion, but rather on the seated couple on the edge of the ferry behind the wagon, who appear to be in full embrace and in mid-kiss. Here is the value of a folk artist: no detail goes unnoticed or is thought to be too trivial. As much as I like historic photography (see the image of Dunsbach's Ferry in the collection of the Capital District Library Council above), there is no substitute the artist-voyeur.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lightning Strikes in Cooperstown

We've had some turbulent weather lately here in upstate New York, and every once in a while, when it thunders and lightnings, I think of Jimmy Litz.

James C. Litz was born in Buffalo, New York in 1948. He graduated from high school in the late 1960s, but never had a chance to enter a trade or begin a career. At the age of eighteen he was drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam. Jimmy served with Company D of the 7th Air Cavalry, the same unit, he noted, that General George Armstrong Custer lost at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Jimmy left Oakland on his nineteenth birthday and arrived in Vietnam at 1 am the next day. He spent his tour of duty with a machine gun unit in the jungles along the South China Sea coast. Here's a photo Jimmy later sent me of himself (on the right) with a buddy, Leo Parker of Dallas, Texas.

Returning to civilian life was extremely difficult. Jimmy recalled that it was impossible for him to take orders from anyone in authority, and so he moved from job to job and turned to alcohol to escape what he saw as a ruined life. His family helped whenever they could, asking Jimmy to do odd jobs that even included entertaining his nephews. At one such babysitting gig, in the early 1980s, he decided to draw some pictures in pencil and have the boys color them. Jimmy enjoyed drawing so much that he bought paints and began to create lively, colorful versions of his sketches.

Jimmy became well known as a folk artist in Buffalo thanks to a local gallery owner and artist, Tony Sisti, and even got some words of encouragement from Will Moses, the grandson of Grandma Moses. But it was a fateful day in 1986 that will forever remain in my mind when I think of Jimmy.

It was mid-afternoon on August 2, and Jimmy and his wife Beverly were enjoying a trip to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. All of a sudden a violent storm kicked up, with torrential rain, high winds, and frightful lightning. Several blocks away from their car, Jimmy and Beverly ran for their lives to the nearest house and frantically knocked on the door to be let in.

The house they entered happened to be the home of Louis C. and Agnes Halsey Jones, pioneering scholars in the field of American folk art. Lou, of course, was the retired Director of our museum, and had formed our great folk art collection in the 1940s and 1950s. Jimmy thoroughly charmed the Joneses, and neither party could believe their luck. Before long, Jimmy was at the Fenimore Art Museum with a portfolio of paintings and we had his work in the permanent collection. I show two of his works here: The Buffalo Bisons War Memorial Stadium from 1987 and Birds, Butterflies, and Survival from 1990. I got to know Jimmy well over the ensuing years, and even visited him in Buffalo. His health began to fail in 2000, when he had to stop painting, and he died of complications from diabetes in 2009.

Jimmy was one of the nicest, most upbeat people I've ever met. He reveled in his life as an artist, saying that painting was "the only real time I am able to communicate what's going on inside my head." Judging from his beautiful paintings, he had negotiated a peace with the world that served everyone well. And judging from the lightning storm, he may well have had someone else looking out for him.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Horse with the Longest Hair in the World

Here is a beautiful and intriguing painting (roughly 18" x 24") we purchased from a woman in North Chatham, New York in 1958, depicting a horse. Not just any horse. But the horse with the longest hair in the world. Supposedly.

I'm pretty sure that title was bestowed on the animal by our then-Director Lou Jones, who was a folklorist by trade and loved tall tales. Looking at this painting, it's easy to see it as a product of an artist's imagination or some flight of fancy on the part of the person who commissioned the painting. Over the years, scores of visitors to the Fenimore Art Museum have thought otherwise, and have filled our research files with candidates for the identity of this horse.

The most compelling case is that of Linus, a Percheron stallion who was featured in Scientific American in 1891. In fact, the engraving of Linus that appeared in the journal (above) was possibly the source for the painting's composition, as opposed to the artist painting the picture from life by viewing the real horse.

Here is what Scientific American had to say about Linus: He is 16 hands in height, weighs 1,435 pounds and is of chestnut color. The mane is fourteen feet, the foretop nine feet, and tail twelve feet long. When spread and drawn out to their full extent, the display of the beautiful locks of bright hair is quite impressive. The greatest care is taken of the hair.  It is washed out with cold water, no tonics being applied to it. Before the horse is placed in his stall the hair is drawn out and divided into several thick strands. From his mane four such strands are made.  Each strand is then tied around once every six inches about to the end. It is then rolled up and put into a bag.  For his mane and foretop alone five bags are required....During the last two years his mane and tail have grown about two feet.

Some years ago someone sent this photograph of Linus, an even better image of him to compare with the painting.

Is this enough to re-title the painting? Perhaps. We haven't done that yet; the title "Horse with the Longest Hair in the World" is hard to let go of.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gregorio Marzan and the Lady of 104th Street

I have had many pleasant encounters with folk artists over the years, most of them on dusty back roads many miles from the nearest population center. As you know from previous posts on Malcah Zeldis and Ralph Fasanella, some of my favorites were right in Manhattan. Gregorio Marzan is another urban folk artist that I recall with great fondness.

He may as well have lived in the middle of nowhere, at least as far as my experience of New York is concerned. Gregorio was an immigrant from Puerto Rico and lived in a housing project on 104th Street in Manhattan in the neighborhood of East Harlem.

I knew from reading books on contemporary folk art that he was born in Vega Baja, west of San Juan in North Central Puerto Rico in 1906. He came to New York in 1937, a refugee of hard times during the Depression and years ahead of the great Puerto Rican migration that followed World War II. The only work he could find was through the Works Progress Administration, first as a sewer worker and later, thankfully, as a maker of toys and dolls in a factory. He remained in this line of work until his retirement in 1971.

Like many folk artists, he did not become idle upon retiring. Gregorio instead used his talents and his penchant for finding objects to work with to create fantastic sculptures. He made portrait busts, colorful animals, and one of the best renditions of the Statue of Liberty ever made (the ones shown just below are from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a private collection). He began to show his work at El Museo del Barrio nearby and became well known, at least in folk art circles.

It was Lady Liberty I was after when I visited Gregorio with my friend Lee Kogan (seen with me and Gregorio in the photo above) in the winter of 1991/92. His neighborhood was quiet if not posh, but his building was quite run down. Wallpaper peeling in the halls. Garbage here and there that we had to step around. Smells I can't describe. And yet Gregorio's apartment was immaculate and he appeared to maintain a steadfast dignity in his old age despite the decline of the world around him. We talked for a while, with his daughter helping to translate. Gregorio didn't flinch when he told me that a Statue of Liberty would cost $800.

Neither did I. We agreed on the price and I left there not entirely sure he had the energy left in him to do another large piece. A few weeks later I received a call from his daughter. The piece was ready. I went back down to New York and back to 104th Street, where I went back into that building and up the elevator to his apartment door. I knocked, and there was no answer. I heard muffled noises coming from inside, but couldn't tell what was going on.

Gregorio finally came to the door and let me in. To my utter astonishment, he had created an elaborate setting in one whole room to showcase his new Statue of Liberty for me. On a pedestal. With special lighting from a single bare lightbulb. The wall behind it cleared to eliminate any distractions. And the Lady - made from plaster, fabric, glue, and even the Elmer's Glue caps - was gorgeous.

I'll never forget the pride on his face; the pride of creation, of course, but also the pride in being American. I told him it was perfect, paid him his money, and gently carried the piece out to my car.

When I first heard about Gregorio's Statues of Liberty I was surprised to find out that he had never actually visited the Lady in person. After that afternoon I realized that it didn't matter, for it was obvious that he carried her with him every day.

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