Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lavern Kelley, The Farmer Who Knew

Lavern Kelley was a dairy farmer who lived just a few miles south of Cooperstown on a small family farm kept up by him and his brother. He had taken up whittling as a young boy after an appendectomy, and continued to carve his whole life. His subject matter was all around him, and included not only farm vehicles like trucks, tractors, and plows, but also people, which he began to carve in response to the requests of his patrons.

I knew Lavern for many years prior to his death in 1995. He was the nicest, most soft-spoken gentleman you would ever have the pleasure of meeting. Despite his fame, he was always humble about his abilities and was always willing to take the time to talk with people about his artwork. We used to have him appear at The Farmers' Museum's annual Harvest Festival to demonstrate his carving, and our visitors - particularly the children - were just entranced by the casual manner in which he sculpted basswood while carrying on a conversation.

He could also write. We have in our files several lengthy and remarkably well-written letters describing his work and his approach to particular pieces. They are worth sharing.

In 1988, the Fenimore Art Museum commissioned two pieces from Kelley. We did not specify what they were to be, only that we wanted two people about three feet tall each. The rest was up to him. Here is how he described his thought process:

When I was first approached concerning the commissioned two figures for the Fenimore Art Museum, I felt both elation and surprise. I had never had a commission of this size before. Since The Farmers' Museum, located across the road, and also a part of the museum campus with the Fenimore, keeps mainly to before the turn of the century in their displays, I thought it would be fitting to make the new pieces from that period.

Usually, a blacksmith was one of the most important people in town, so I settled on a blacksmith for the male figure. I felt this was fitting, too, because there is an active blacksmith shop at The Farmers' Museum. The female figure, however, posed a little bigger problem, since women were not as highly visible in that period. The two most obvious walks of life for a woman at that time would have been the housewife or the schoolmarm, at least that was all I could think of. I settled on the schoolmarm, and this also fitted in nicely, because there is a schoolhouse across the road at the museum.

Lavern worked on the blacksmith for about five months, in between his seasonal farm chores. The schoolmarm, completed in the winter, went faster. The finished pair have graced our galleries off and on for many years now, and every time I see them I think of the two museums on our campus - the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers' Museum - and the cultural ties between them that too few people grasp. I also think of the unassuming local farmer who saw it all so clearly and expressed it so beautifully in wood.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Supporting Cast

I was walking through the folk art gallery of the museum today and a little-noticed figure caught my eye. An unknown sailor in a painting celebrating Commodore Perry's victory on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. It ocurred to me that we pay so little attention to the supporting cast in these paintings. Here is a couple of noteworthy cast members in our gallery, beginning with the aforementioned sailor.

Perry is considered a hero for his naval brilliance and bravery in the midst of battle. His crew may have been more concerned with survival, judging from the terrified look on the face of the sailor in the peephole. His look stands in stark contrast to the stoic determnation of the lead actor in this historical drama.

We've seen this large, round banner meant to be carried in political parades on behalf of the Whig Party in the 1840s. In the scene, the artist included the Erie Canal as an example of the Whig program of internal improvements meant to ensure trade and commerce.

Standing in as the only person in this banner is a tiny figure at the edge of the canal, holding a long pole meant to (I presume) gauge the depth of the water in the lock. His role is tiny in the grander scheme of the banner and what it represents, but he is an effective stand-in for the legions of working Americans playing a vital role in the nation's economic life.

Two small, barely noticable figures at the edges of the action. Both hold keys to the meaning of the works, and like any supprting cast, draw attention to the main point or purpose of the paintng. The stories wouldn't be complete without them.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Painting the Poorhouse

Studying American folk art has shown me time and time again how the creative products of an artist can mask the turbulent life from which they had sprung. This is particularly true of a group of painters who were active in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century. These folk artists were prone to heavy drinking, which resulted in poverty and homelessness. But they had two things going for them; they knew where they could go to get back on their feet, and they could paint breathtakingly beautiful scenery of their favorite havens.

The artists were Charles C. Hoffmann, John Rasmussen, and Louis Mader, and their principal refuge was the Berks County Almshouse in Reading, Pennsylvania. Beginning in the 1870s with Hoffmann, they painted stunning birds-eye views of the Almshouse during their residencies. These large works of art documented the buildings, grounds, and activities of the institution in painstaking detail and bright colors, and were the perfect keepsake for the Almshouse Stewards or Board members who commissioned them.

We are fortunate to have an exceptional Rasmussen in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. The work is painted on tin, dated 1881, and is quite large at roughly 39" x 46". Rasmussen came along a few years later than Hoffmann, and may have seen some of his work in the Almshouse when he was there. He obviously admired Hoffmann's style, as he emulated it in his own works. Here we can see the main campus of the Almshouse strikingly rendered in a large oval at the center, with vignettes of singular structures in each corner and a large decorative patriotic flourish at the top. A tour-de-force of topographical folk painting.

I should note that the main building at the center was where most of the residents stayed; one wing was for the men, the other for women. Other areas of the grounds show a pump house, a schoolhouse, a church, and quite a few fields where a variety of crops are cultivated. All in all, it is a vision of a self-sustaining community. It wasn't all utopian harmony, of course. The building at the lower right (seen in the detail below), with the high enclosure just outside, was for the housing of mentally ill residents who were prone to violence.

The general feeling, however, is one of happiness, plentitude, and safety from the vicissitudes of life. This refuge was only temporary for some, like Hoffmann, who used his skill as an artist to earn his way out. Repeatedly. It was his great misfortune that his alcoholism would not allow him to keep company with money for very long, and he found himself back in the Almshouse in short order. He would then repeat the vicious cycle by painting more of these views to get back out.

We do not know enough about Rasmussen to make the same conclusion, but Hoffmann's experience makes it hard to look at these outwardly joyous paintings without seeing the tragic combination of artistic talent and human frailty that gave them life.  

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Horseshoe Sign

One of our curators recently found this piece behind some large farming equipment in a wing of our storage facility and brought it out to get a better look. When I happened upon it on a walk-through of storage I was startled for two reasons: one, it was something I had never seen before; and two, it is a really cool piece of (probably local) folk art.

It is a sign probably dating to the early 20th century advertising the horseshoeing busines of C.V. Olmsted. The sign measures about 16 x 50 inches and the letters are made of cast-off and broken horseshoes. Very clever.

The problem is that we have no idea where it came from or when. It was found in the collection of The Farmers' Museum in 1973 without any record of its history or date of acquisition. This is a thankfully rare occurance today, but in the early days of the museum it was common for people to drop things off for the collection without leaving much in the way of documentation.

I imagine that, back then, perhaps it was felt that everyone knew who C.V. Olmsted was.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Baker's Dozen

While small, paperback-size butter molds are very common, and largely anonymous, large cake boards that can be linked to a specific owner or maker are extremely rare. Only about a dozen documented cake boards are known. We are fortunate to have two of these magnificent examples of folk sculpture in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. And how the original owners (New York City bakers, for the most part) would chuckle at the thought of their cake board being exhibited in an art museum.

This cake board measures about 18" x 30" and features a memorial to George Washington. Our other board is a tribute to Lafayette. It, like the others, was meant to create a design in a large sheet of gingerbread. The method was simple; the stiff dough of the gingerbread was pressed or rolled onto the mold And then allowed to dry before being baked. The carvers of these boards deliberately made their designs in large gouges rather than delicate tracery so that the image would hold its resolution during the baking.

The result must have been specatacular, which was why these cake boards would most often be found in large bakeries or in the homes of the well-to-do. Most of them were commissioned by the bakers who worked in New York's Bowery in the first half of the 19th century.

If you look closely at our board, you will notice, admist all of the standard iconography of a memorial to Washington, the word "Tasten" along the bottom. It stamds for Thomas Asten, a baker who worked on Greenwich Street in New York from 1824 to 1827. He later became a partner with another baker and, eventually, a street inspecter and auctioneer.

When Asten went out of business as a baker, he must have sold the tools of his trade to other bakeries. If you look at the lower corners of our piece, you will see the letters "J" and "C" in script. The experts in the history of these cake boards (yes, there are a few) believe that these initials are in a different style than the rest of the cake board and thus were added later.

But not much later. One scholar thinks that they stand for John or Jameson Cox, who ran a bakery on Pike Street in New York up until 1834.

Who carved these boards? It's not easy to say, although we do know the names of two carvers, John Conger and Henry Fox, who signed boards. Conger's background is not known; Cox was a carpenter. Conger may have carved wood blocks for prints, which would help explain why the imagery in many of these boards is based on published print sources. And like the blocks carved for prints, these images had to be carved in reverse.

It was one of the 20th century's great sculptors, Elie Nadelman, who found this cake board and added it to his growing collection of American folk art sometime during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It took just over a century for our cake board to make the trek uptown from Lower Manhattan to Nadelman's home in Riverdale-on-Hudson.

About a decade later it was in our folk art gallery in Cooperstown, where today it hangs in a converted ballroom reminiscent of those formal dining areas it may have served shortly after being carved.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Elegy for a Museum Director

How many of us get to (or think to) write our own obituary? Daniel R. Porter, who was the Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program when I first came to Cooperstown in 1981, and later became Director of the Fenimore Art Museum's parent organization, made sure he had the final word. The result is pure folk literature, witty and self-deprecating and a joy to read.

Dan Porter was a real piece of work, but he supported my career when I was just starting out and I owe him the honor of having his last words read by my readers here. Please take the time to read the obit he wrote for himself and left in the care of his younger brother, with instructions to simply fill in the date of death when the time came. We should all be so organized.

Daniel R. Porter III

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - With trumpets blaring, Zeus, god of gods, called Daniel Reed Porter III to His Heavenly Pantheon on Nov. 21, 2006.

He (Porter, not Zeus) was the second White child born in the new maternity ward of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton (Mass) on his father's birthday July 2, 1930. His mother Eleanor (Parsons) needed all the help she could get.

Porter was reared on a small farm with his siblings in Worthington. Sickly as a child, his parents often contemplated drowning him in Watt's Brook that flowed (trickled in summer) behind the house into which (the brook, not the house) they deposited other trash, sewage and cow manure.

After being partially educated in local schools, Porter matriculated in the class of 1952 at UMass, formerly Mass Aggie. Here he failed to distinguish himself in any meaningful way, and managed to alienate a number of his classmates and professors. Upon graduation without honors, Porter was drafted into the Army and served in Korea before and after the armistice. There he learned more than at college - never volunteer, be cowardly to survive, don't circulate petitions and keep away from indigenous females.

Returning home ill-prepared for an occupation, he was strangely accepted by the University of Michigan Graduate School where he tried to prepare for an acceptable if not respectable occupation.

A 35-year career as a museum and historical agency administrator and museum director followed. He moved from state to state five times to keep ahead of his reputation. He completed his career ignominiously in Cooperstown in 1992. On his demise, he was a member of no organization, club or charity.

Porter was not survived by his parents and sister, Janice Leroux. But surviving him are his relict, Joan (Dornfeld); a daughter, Leslie, her husband, Edward Easton III, and their daughters, Erika, Caitlin, and Allison, of Coudersport (God's Country), Pa.; his son, Andrew, and his wife, Amy (Pens), and their heir, Reed; a brother, Edward, and his wife, Shirley (Smith), on Watt's Brook; a brother-in-law, Al Leroux, and his Buick sedan of Northampton; and numbers of nieces and nephews.

There will be no final rites or any mumbo-jumbo. He will not lie in state at the The Farmers' Museum. His cremated remains will be scattered on Watt's Brook. Memorial gifts will not be accepted and cards are a waste of money.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Fireplace Fantasy

Okay, so blogging while also being President is harder than I thought. I can't believe it's been nearly a month since my last post. What's even harder to believe is that, if my Followers gadget is correct, I have actually gained followers during that time. Thank you to everyone who has signed on and held on. Here's another little tidbit from the storage racks for you.

This fireboard has been in the collection since 1950, when we acquired it from Jean Lipman. That's sixty-one years, and I cannot recall it ever being on view. It's relegation to storage is probably owing to the lack of information about it, but it is intriguing onetheless and beautiful to behold.

A fireboard, in case you don't know, is an portable enclosure usually made of wood or canvas and used to cover the unsightly fireplace in the summer months. We have a number of these, the most famous of which is our great "Bear and Pears," also from Lipman.

This piece is more enigmatic, as the scene it depicts is exotic and mysterious, possibly based on a print or number of prints of foreign lands that so intrigued New Englanders in the nineteenth century.

It belonged to a Connecticut collector named Titus Geesey, who felt strongly that it was of Connecticut origin, mainly because the painted decoration along the borders resembled the painted tin designs of local decorators. Other than this theory, we have no information as to its history.

But that never stops us from speculating. As I was researching the piece for this post I came across a gem of an interpretation in an old graduate student report. Back in 1968 a student in the folkore program at Cooperstown, clearly exasperated at being unable to find any solid information on this painting and needed something to say, offered this statement for posterity:

"An attempt to interpret this particular pastiche in terms of the life of the time leads me to conclude that limners ate opium on the job; that there were lions large and relaxed roaming (or at least posing) with Amazon women near castles with Mansard roofs; that somewhere in New England there existed a culture in which people came in a variety of sizes."

I just love this interpretation. It captures the whimsey of the piece like no academic study could do. And it is a reminder that a fireboard was one of the few art forms that was always displayed at child height. What flights of fancy would have been taken in this parlor.

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