This is where it all started. I was a summer intern at the Fenimore Art Museum in between semesters at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, working on my Master's degree and searching for a niche in the museum world. I was tasked with the research and installation of a major exhibition of the American folk art collection. Heady stuff for a 23-year-old. I think I got the internship because I was the only applicant who had taken the folk art graduate course offered by our former director Louis C. Jones and his wife Aggie. Lucky for me, as it turned out to be the defining moment in my career.
One of my first assignments as an intern was to seek out and acquire an Otsego County folk painting that the director had heard existed. It was owned by a local woman whose mother had found it in an antiques shop along Route 20, just a few miles north of Cooperstown, sometime in the mid-20th century. According to the information our director had, it was an oil on board, about 20" x 30" and depicted a local building.
When the museum's then-curator and I first got a look at the piece we were more than pleasantly surprised. For a simple painting on board, this work offers a lot. The late 18th-century saltbox clapboard structure with a log addition. Figures rowing, washing clothes in the lake or stream, walking across the lawn toward a horse, fishing. And the variety of animals: a cow, geese, a sheep, and a large pig.
My favorite detail is the tavern sign high up on the pole to the left of the building. I only wish it was legible. It seems likely that this piece depicts a local scene, although it would be difficult if not impossible to identify conclusively. It is also worth remembering that Route 20, where this was found, was once called the Great Western Turnpike, so this painting may have originated in New England and migrated westward as so many people and objects did in the early 19th century. We acquired the piece, of course (the mother had made her daughter promise to give it to us eventually) and gave it a place of honor in the new exhibition.
The tavern in the painting looks like a friendly and welcoming spot for any weary traveler making their way along that hilly route. But to me it represents the start of a nearly 30-year journey exploring the variegated world of American folk art, with each new valley more exciting than the last.