Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dallas Museum of Art

In a recent visit to the Dallas Museum of Art, where our American Indian Art collection opened the third leg of its national tour last week, I had the pleasure of viewing a couple of grand " canvases." it's nice to see a quilt get equal billing to a major American landscape. This Barn Raising quilt is almost the same size as Frederic Church's famous 1861 painting "The Icebergs".

The latter is a dascinating story of discovery. The great painting, which enthralled thousands when it was exhibited in 1861, was lost for more than a century. It was found, after an exhaustive search, on a liitle-used third floor landing of a large manaion in England that was being used as a home for delinquent boys.

The quilt was made in the 1890s and, as far as I could tell, has a less dramatic history. It was probably a treasured heirloom in a middle-class home until it was given to the museum in 1998.

This disparity in provenance fascinated me. Ordinarily it is folk art that is more vulnerable to the ravages of time. In this case, the folk art textile had far more careful stewardship, while one of the most famous landscapes of its time lanquished for decades in a hostile environment. Delinquent boys are usually not kind to paintings. I guess we owe these boys a debt of gratitude for the survival of "The Icebergs".

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, April 22, 2011


It's not like me to go eleven days without posting. Since I launched this blog in August of 2009 I have managed, somehow, to post about twice a week. Lately, however, something has happened that will make it difficult to continue at that pace.

In late March, I was appointed President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown. It was a bit of a surprise, but also quite an honor. And my calendar exploded.

As I worked my way through meetings, openings, and conference calls these past few weeks, I have thought often of this blog and how I would keep it going. It is just too much fun to let go.

But to keep it going, There have to be some changes. More photo blogging. More mobile blogging, using my iPhone like I'm doing today. Perhaps posting once a week instead of twice.

There is stiil a lot to share on the topic of American folk art. I hope you all continue to enjoy this blog; maybe even more than before. It will continue to celebrate the lost and forgotten, the quirky and offbeat, the extraordinary found in ordinary people.

There's no way I'm going to let that go.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ray's Ornamental Gardens

One of the most interesting and compelling areas of study in the field of American folk art is the folk environments that were once great attractions but, owing to time and the elements, are now considered defunct. Often these works exist only in the photographs that visitors had the foresight to take when they could still be taken. I recently purchased two old black and white photographs of a folk environment on eBay and as a result had a whole new wold open up to me.

The photos I purchased are the ones at the top and bottom of this post. The dealer who sold them knew only that the bottom one was from Stephenville, Texas. He did not know where the top one came from. At first glance, they looked similar to me. Something about the style of the concrete, glass, and ceramic pieces that made up the environment.

After some digging online, I found out that these photos were taken at the once-famous Ray's Ornamental Gardens in Stephenville sometime in the 1940s. George Ellis Ray was born in Tennessee in 1881 and married Melissa Gallaher there in 1900. She died in Stephenville in 1932 and that, I believe, is when George began his environment (the dealer mentioned something about the maker doing this project out of grief for his wife).

It was such a local attraction that several postcards were made at the time, two of which I illustrate here. One book on Stephenville even described the popularity and nature of the site, which was a real find:

"A unique and interesting Stephenville novelty was the inimitable Ray's Gardens, which brought people from near and far. There, guests could view the often bizarre and unusual folk art of George Ellis Ray (1881-1957). He made sculptures of concrete, tile, colored glass, shells, and petrified rock. While visiting, guests could read George's homespun, thought-provoking, philosophical aphorisms, listening all the while to gospel music played trough a loudspeaker system."

George died in 1957 and, as is often the case, the environment fell into disrepair. Supposedly nothing of it can be seen today. We can. however, enjoy George Ray's work through these images, and admire his ability and desire to express himself visually and share that vision broadly. That is, for me, the hallmark of great folk art.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Portrait of a Dullard as a Long-Winded Preacher

Most museum labels don't provide a lot of insight. It seems that many curators are content with sharing only the basic data on a piece, like the title, artist, date, and medium. Oh, and the donor. It's rare to read any thoughts or opinions on the part of the people who know these works best.

This painting, which I saw in my trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts back in February, was an exception. The label struck me as a clever bit of insight into this guy, who was painted by the itinerant folk artist Ammi Phillips in Troy,New York, in about 1820.

His name was Jonas Coe, and he was a Presbyterian minister. According tot he label, a writer from the time period left us with our only verbal picture of Reverend Coe: "Great in character rather than in intellect, wit, or eloquence." Translation: boring and long-winded.

The curators who wrote the label astutely point out the visual clues to this man's lack of ability to engage his parishioners. His right hand is open and arm extended as if lamely making a point, and the fingers of his left hand mark the page in his Bible that is no doubt the source of his sermon. As the label points out, a "pedantic" style rather than an inspired one.

The last line of the label, which addresses the Rev. Coe's face, is priceless. "His dour expression augurs sterns and lengthy sermons." I wonder how many of these Ammi Phillips had to sit through in order to be able to express so beautifully the dullard's countenance and gestures. 
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