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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