Monday, August 17, 2009

If these walls could talk

To say that you find folk art in the most unexpected places can be, in some circumstances, an understatement. Consider the case of John Orne Johnson (J. O. J.) Frost of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Frost was born in Marblehead in 1852 and went to sea as a young man, then settled down, married, had two children, and went into the restaurant business with his father-in-law. He retired due to illness in 1865 and helped his wife Annie raise her acclaimed sweet peas and flowers. After Annie’s death in 1919 he lived a quiet, solitary existence.

To fill his days, and perhaps overcome his grief, Frost took up painting. He depicted vivid scenes of Marblehead’s history, memories of his own life, and wooden models of ship, buildings, birds, and fish. Local legend has it that he often carted his paintings around town in a wheel barrow, offering them for fifty cents each.

Eventually he was inspired to open his own museum at his home on Pond Street, where he built a small structure in the back and charged 25 cents to see his works and hear his stories of old Marblehead. Stories abound about how local folks made fun of the paintings, but did not deter Frost from his enterprise.

Frost died in 1928, and his son Frank inherited about 80 paintings. He sold some to a couple who arranged for a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which marked Frost’s first recognition as an artist, however short-lived.

The drama really unfolded in 1952, when a Mr. and Mrs. Mason bought the old Frost home on Pond Street. One day, while doing renovations to the house, they turned over some wallboards and found that the insides were painted with colorful scenes. By the time they finished their work, the Masons had discovered 33 Frost paintings that had been used by the artist's son to “sheetrock” rooms! The Masons sent the paintings off to galleries in New York and Boston in 1954, and Frost’s reputation as a major early 20th-century folk artist was sealed. Today his works are in major museums around the country.

You can see an impressive collection of Frost’s work at the Marblehead Historical Society and we always have one on view at the Fenimore Art Museum (see "Colonel Glover's Fishermen Leaving Marble Head for Cambridge, 1775" above). To me, it is another reminder to pay attention to those passionate local people who paint or sculpt their lives. And don’t ever pass up a fifty-cent painting in a wheelbarrow.


  1. Great post, Paul. Really good stuff...

  2. Thanks, Gary! Glad you like the blog.

  3. Great to see one of my favorite paintings--and would still love to see a J.O.J. Frost exhibit at NYSHA!


  4. I had a feeling I'd hear from you! If only we could do the Frost show. Let's stay in touch.


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