Monday, September 28, 2009

The Jewish Origins of American Carousel Carving

Nothing seems more American than a carousel animal, especially at a place like Coney Island in its heyday. Horses galloping with flowing manes and flared nostrils, exotic animals like lions (the example above, by Marcus Charles Illions, is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York) and tigers snarling and roaring to the delight of youngsters and adults. It has long been recognized that the Coney Island style of carousel carving was more flamboyant than that seen in other centers of this kind of sculpture. What hasn’t been understood until recently is why. And the answer lies in a carving tradition quite distant from America geographically and culturally.

You see, the reason these figures look the way they do is that the carvers were Jewish. Really. This was a complete revelation to me when I first saw the exhibition Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel, which opened at the American Folk Art Museum in 2007 and came to the Fenimore Art Museum in 2008. The exhibition curator Murray Zimiles made a compelling case for the reevaluation of a quintessentially American art form, tying it convincingly to the Jewish aesthetic traditions of Eastern and Central Europe.

Photographs of huge Jewish synagogues (none of which have survived owing to anti-Semitic destruction leading up to and during World War II) show massive wooden structures that featured ornate interior decoration. The primary focus of the interior was the Torah Ark, a large (sometime more than thirty feet tall! See the example from a synagogue in Lithuania at right) cabinet that held the Torah scrolls (the first five books of the Bible). These arks often had elaborate carving, which included eagles and lions. The lions are often seen flanking and holding the Tablets of the Law, or Decalogue (an American example of this form, also by Illions, can be seen below).

It’s not just the presence of the carving that matters, but also the manner or style. The animals in these synagogues were meant to get the attention of the congregation. They exude physical power in their ferocity and sense of movement. Just like the carousel animals of Coney Island.

Marcus Charles Illions was one of the key figures in this trans-Atlantic artistic crossing. His Brooklyn shop can be seen in the photo below. Illions was born in Lithuania (then part of Russia) in the 1860s or 70s, was conscripted into the Russian army and fled his homeland for England, where he perfected his carving skills, and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s to eventually start his own shop.

Take a good look at the picture. On the wall is a large drawing of a carousel lion; the very one that was included in the exhibition and is pictured at the top of this post. To the right of the drawing, above a doorway, is a Decalogue probably carved for a New York City synagogue, similar to t he one pictured above. Holding the Tablets are a pair of lions with flowing manes and ferocious expressions just like their carousel counterpart. Two traditions, thousands of miles apart, side by side in a New York City carving shop.

Author’s note: Our own Empire State Carousel at The Farmers’ Museum is the product of a Jewish carver, Gerry Holzman, who says he was inspired by the Coney Island style when he envisioned and created our carousel.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where There's Smoke....Joseph and the Burning of Troy

Eureka moments are rare indeed. For nearly 70 years the Fenimore Art Museum has had a painting of Poestenkill, New York (near Albany) by Joseph Henry Hidley in its collection. Hidley, a house painter, carpenter, taxidermist, and handyman, painted a number of bird’s-eye views of his home town from different angles and at different times of the year. There are several of these works in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. I have always felt (no surprise here) that ours was the best, owing to the dynamic sweep of the diagonal lines in the landscape that add vitality to the composition.

Primary among those strong diagonals is the mass of dark clouds on the horizon. This is somewhat of a convention in American landscape art, and we see it often in the works of Thomas Cole, who uses the passing storm as a kind of symbol of nature’s cleansing power. In the Hidley painting it seemed a more distant, and perhaps not so symbolic, point of interest.

The truth should not have been a surprise, but it was. Folk artists were much more literal than symbolic in their works, especially in the 19th century. They tended to paint exactly what they saw, because they were often painting for local patrons who knew the subject as well as they did. Rest assured that the buildings depicted in this painting were actually there on May 10, 1862, when Hidley signed and dated this work.

Something else was lurking there too, which he dutifully recorded, perhaps without even knowing what it was. In the early afternoon of May 10, 1862, sparks from a locomotive set a covered railroad bridge on fire in Troy, New York, eight miles west of Poestenkill. Winds spread the fire throughout the city, and by evening it had claimed more than 500 buildings and five lives. No one had ever connected the fire to the Hidley painting until about two years ago, when staff at the Rensselaer County Historical Society brought it to our attention. They correctly noted that from Hidley’s perspective, Troy sits directly under that ominous black cloud.

As he sat on that hillside on a spring afternoon, it is entirely possible that Hidley did not realize that, in the course of documenting the beauty of his town, he was recording the destruction of another.
Poestenkill, New York, 1862, by Joseph Henry Hidley (1830-1872), oil on wood panel, 19" x 31 1/4"
Engraving, Ruins of the Great Fire of Troy, New York, May 10, 1862.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Earl Cunningham: Safe Harbors and Lost Horizons

The truck’s name was Dirigo, Latin for "I direct," and it fit the temperament of its owner. Earl Cunningham had a strong independent streak, beginning in his youth when, at the age of 13, he left home to make a living as a tinker and a peddler. Growing up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in the 1890s and early 1900s, Cunningham also had a lifelong fascination with maritime life. The way he lived his life, and the manner in which he chose to express his dreams and record his experiences, led to the creation of one of the most visually arresting bodies of work in 20th-century folk art.

While spending his youth trying to sell paintings of boats and New England farms painted on salvaged wood, Cunningham also learned the maritime trade from a local ship's captain and obtained a license to pilot boats in harbors and on rivers. In 1915 he bought a 35-foot cabin cruiser, where he lived with his new wife Iva, sailing between Maine and Florida.

The Sunshine State captivated him, with its lush, tropical flora and fauna, American Indian communities, and natural wonders like the Everglades. Cunningham collected Indian artifacts and opalized coral, hoping to sell them back in Maine, and painted his surroundings in brilliant colors. He eventually settled in St. Augustine in the late 1940s, where he opened an antique shop called the Overfork Gallery (a play on the phrase “fork over”). In adjoining rooms he had a gallery of paintings that represented his life's work. They were not for sale.

Cunningham had two life goals; first, he wanted to create 1000 paintings and house them in a museum, preferably a museum of his own making. After several failed attempts to accomplish this goal, Cunningham settled in St. Augustine and set up his shop and gallery. In January 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy accepted his gift of The Everglades on behalf of her sailing-obsessed husband and hung it in his office. In his lifetime the artist completed about 450 works, but despite the success with the Kennedy White House they did not make it into museum collections while he was still alive. There is now, thanks to the collecting of Michael and Marilyn Mennello, a large group of his paintings in the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida. Cunningham’s other life goal, to buy a houseboat and once again live on the waterways he loved, was likewise never realized.

The paintings themselves are remarkable. A great selection of them traveled to the Fenimore Art Museum in 2008 as part of the exhbition Earl Cunningham's America. Brilliantly colored, and focused upon wildlife and all manner of sailing vessels in snug harbors and bays, they seem to reflect Cunningham’s love of nature and his search for a home on the water. It is also fascinating how he combined the Florida landscape with legends of Norse sailors recalled from his youth in Maine.

Cunningham had a long-time companion in Theresia Paffe, who owned the building that housed his gallery. Their relationship was at times tumultuous, as Cunningham was increasingly riddled with anxiety and depression toward the end of his life, but they maintained a close relationship until his death. In 1977, at the age of 84, Cunningham shot himself. Knowing his lifelong ambition to own a houseboat, Theresia noted poignantly in 1979: “He died with the price of one in the bank, and every picture in Overfork has water in it.”
Top to bottom:
The Twenty-One, 1977, oil on fiberboard, 28 11/16" x 52 3/4"
Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello
Earl Cunningham standing in front of Overfork Gallery, 1970
Photograph by Jerry Uelsmann
Palm Beach, 1950, oil on fiberboard, 32 9/16" x 61 1/4"
Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello
The Everglades, about 1960, oil on masonite, 32 1/2" x 60 13/16"
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Did F.H. Sweet Really Paint with his Feet?

Here’s a good Curatorial Tall Tale from the research files. We have had this painting of the Buck Farm by F.H. Sweet in our collection since 1961. I’ve never exhibited it, but recalled reading somewhere that there was something unusual about the artist. Just today I went back to the file and found a note from 1964, which read:

This week a lady visitor told the guide that she was adopted into the Buck family at the age of five years and lived in this house until her marriage. She remembers Mr. Sweet, the artist, who came along the road one day and asked to paint the house. He was born without arms and painted this and another just like it, with his feet.

True story. Not.

Some years later one of the students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program conducted interviews with Buck family members and even found Sweet’s niece living just a short distance away in Mohawk, New York, near Utica. Here’s what the student found out:

Frank H. Sweet was born in Middleville, about 10 miles north of Mohawk, date unknown but most definitely with both arms intact. As a youth his right side was paralyzed by an overdose of medicine. He worked in Glens Falls as a bookkeeper for a time, and then moved back to the Mohawk Valley. At some point he started painting for a living, getting buggy rides from the family he lived with and apparently painting or sketching local farms from the buggy, using his left hand. He died before 1940 and is buried in Middleville Cemetery in Herkimer County.

This painting of the Buck Farm (seen in its entirety at the top) was painted in Salisbury Center, just a few miles north of Mohawk, about 1915. Mr. Buck was a builder of stone fences and used oxen to haul the stone. The object on the red barn (seen in the detail above) is a pair of ox horns. Buck also ran a slaughterhouse, processing the meat in the red barn and storing in the barn on the left side of the painting.

And so Frank H. Sweet joins a long list of folk artists with disabilities that have been documented traveling the back roads of 19th-century America plying their trade, including such legendary figures as John Brewster, Jr. and Joseph Whiting Stock. It says a lot about early 20th-century sensibilities that he was remembered as a kind of sideshow figure, supposedly painting with is feet. Good solid research has put his brush back in his hand, where it belongs. And it won’t be long before this painting goes up on the walls of our folk art gallery here at the Fenimore Art Museum.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The African American Cigar Store Indian

This is another in a series of posts about the great folk art pieces included in the Fenimore Art Museum’s traveling exhibition Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art, which is on view at the New York State Museum in Albany through January 6, 2010. This exhibition is curated by Dr. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, who, by the way, has just been awarded the prestigious Katherine Coffey Award from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums. Unlike the first sculpture I discussed in my August 31 post, which was a depiction of a black man by a white artist, this piece was created by an African American carver.

Our “African American Cigar Store Figure” (above left) was found in Freehold, New Jersey in the mid-20th century. According to local tradition, it was carved in about 1825 by a freed slave named Job. This has never been substantiated, but the piece itself presents some compelling physical evidence that strongly suggests that it is the product of a black folk artist.

First, it is not made like any other known cigar store figures carved by white artists (many of them German immigrants) in American urban centers in the mid-19th century. These figures were usually made by sectioning off a length of solid log (usually pine, which was straight-grained: old ships’ masts were ideal for this purpose) and carving the figure’s body and head. The arms, which often extended outward, would be carved separately and joined to the body. Job’s figure is not made this way at all. Instead, the artist carved and joined thirteen separate pieces of wood to form the body and its appendages. The precision of the joinery suggests that Job may have mastered the craft of cabinetmaking, a trade he would have shared with numerous African Americans of his time.

Second, this figure does not look like any other known cigar store figure. The torso and arms are boldly stylized into angular, geometric shapes. Likewise, the face is flattened and mask-like. The vast majority of cigar store figures were naturalistic carvings with faces that were either brutally savage or idealized with Anglo-American features. Since our figure’s discovery and publication in the 1940s, numerous scholars have noted these distinctly African stylistic traits, as seen in the examples of African art at above left and right.

The folk art scholar and collector Michael D. Hall (whose collection is in the Milwaukee Art Museum) often used our Job figure to illustrate how the best American folk art was represented by those rare pieces that were within an established visual tradition yet displayed an individual’s stamp of creativity and innovation. I can’t help but agree. But there is also something about this figure that is quintessentially American in the delicate balance between this former slave’s cultural memory and his social, economic, and artistic aspirations.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two Great Folk Artists at the Harvest Festival!

I spent the day at The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown with the family, enjoying the historic buildings, the wagon rides, great food, music, and of course the Empire State Carousel, all at the annual Harvest Festival. What I also found, and had to share in a quick post here, was two terrific folk artists working in time honored traditions and offering their wares for sale.

The first is the decoy carver Jonathan J. Dowdall from Burlington Flats, N.Y. Jonathan was a cabinetmaker who has been carving his own decoys since he was a boy. He uses his own decoys to hunt, so he knows how these functional sculptures are supposed to work. Holding up one of his birds, Jonathan explained how, in the working models, he adds weights to the underside to get them to sit naturally in the water. The carving on his decoys is remarkable; the painting superb.

The other folk artist is Walter Fleming, who has been a tinsmith for more than 25 years. I used to have him come to Cooperstown to teach the craft at our annual Seminars on American Culture back in the 1990s. His booth had a lively array of miniature weathervanes and silhouettes. Walter also took some time to explain the workings of an ingenius French-designed automatic candle snuffer that he has reproduced.

One artist in wood, the other in metal. Both interpreting the long-standing practice of creating of useful sculpture and both grounded in a solid craft tradition. If you enjoy the artistic side of American traces and crafts, these are two contemporary artists you will want to see. The Harvest Festival runs through tomorrow, Sunday, September 13.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Stimp": The Wall Stenciller of Bump Tavern

They are the most elusive folk artists, even though their output was prolific and widespread. I’m talking about the stencillers who decorated the plaster walls of homes, businesses, and public buildings in the early 19th century. Only a few have been identified, but if you have been to The Farmers’ Museum, you have probably seen the work of one of the most interesting and colorful of these characters.

Bump Tavern is very popular among the thousands of museum visitors that come to the museum each year, but few people realize that the wall decoration relates closely to a body of decorative work in Connecticut, where the Bump family came from. When the tavern was moved to the museum in the 1950s, workers discovered stenciling under wallpaper in three second floor rooms. The plaster was beyond restoration, so the museum decided to preserve one section of the original wall (viewable behind a hinged wallboard, above) and have the rest of the stenciling recreated by a member of the Historical Society of Early American Decoration.

Early scholars of American wall stenciling noticed the similarity of the original Bump Tavern stencil patterns with a number of homes in Litchfield County, Connecticut, including the Isaac Hartwell house in Washington. The stenciller is thought to have also worked in Northfield Farms, Massachusetts, where he decorated the Stratton Tavern (right and below left), and in Dover Plains, New York, where he stencilled the walls of the Perry House (above). Local tradition held that the stenciller of the Hartwell house was a man known only as “Stimp,” who drifted into town as an older traveling artist and decorated Mr. Hartwell’s parlor in the early 1830s. According to one local source’s childhood memory, Stimp went to his client’s home in 1834, “crazed with drink,” and tried to kill Hartwell. He was taken into custody, said to have been led to the village whipping post, and sent to the town jail. There is no other mention of his whereabouts after this incident.

In the late 1990s a local museum researched Stimp, and although the jail records were no help, they did find a Caleb H. Stimpson living in the area in the 1830s. There is no direct evidence to tell us that this was the Stimp in question, but it is interesting that there are also several Stimpsons, from Connecticut, who were among the early settlers of Windham and Ashland, New York, the original site of Bump Tavern. This research is summarized here.

So now when you wander through the second floor of Bump Tavern admiring the artist’s signature pinwheel and acorn borders, distinctive swag and tassel cornice patterns, and S-curved floral motifs, you can appreciate the New England ties of both the owner and the artist. You can also see how a 19th-century folk artist used his repertoire of images to decorate a complex space full of nooks and crannies. You can wonder why he left the job before it was complete (see below). And, lastly, you can imagine how an artist prone to drinking to excess managed to work day after day in a tavern with temptation stalking him in every corner.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ralph Fasanella's Labor of Love

There’s really only one post I would consider doing on my first Labor Day as a folk art blogger. As anyone who knows me will attest, I have a particular fascination with the life and work of Ralph Fasanella, the subject of my dissertation and an exhibition and book back in 2001. His life story is a fitting backdrop to our annual day of relaxation marking the end of summer.

And what a life story it is. Fasanella was born to Italian immigrants on Labor Day in 1914 (okay, this might be off by a day or too but it is too symbolic to ignore) and spent his youth working with his father delivering ice in Lower Manhattan and the Bronx. It was back breaking work, slinging huge blocks of ice over the shoulder with ice tongs and hauling them up tenement stairs. His mother, the real influence on his life, worked in the garment trades and was an active union member. She was also an early antifascist, hosting meetings in their apartment in the 1920s to protest Mussolini long before anyone had even heard of Hitler.

Ralph became a garment worker and truck driver, among other things, and in the late 1930s fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. These were the 3,000 or so Americans who volunteered to travel to Spain clandestinely to fight against the Fascist regime of Francisco Franco. After returning from Spain he became a Union organizer before finally turning to painting in the late 1940s. Over the course of the next 50 years, until his death in 1997, Fasanella created a body of work that celebrated working people, their neighborhoods and communities, protested the injustices done to them throughout American history, and questioned mainstream American values.

His basic message is that we too often forget; we forget where we come from, who sacrificed for us so that we wouldn’t have to, and who and what it is that truly sustains us. One of his great paintings is the one shown above, in the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum. It depicts a labor parade, but not on Labor Day. The occasion for this parade was a far bigger and more important labor holiday prior to World War II: May Day, the International Workers’ Day celebrated each May 1st for decades throughout America and Europe.

In “May Day” (1947, 50” x 80”) Fasanella pays tribute to the heroes of Labor, in the center, a group that includes Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sacco and Vanzetti, and yes, Karl Marx. He also shows the power of collectivity in the masses of works marching across the canvas from the left. To the right he shows the world they are struggling to create; a working-class dream of decent, affordable housing, room for recreation and learning, and the time and capacity to see and appreciate beauty.

On this Labor Day, as the country enjoys a day off from work, Fasanella’s paintings are here to remind us that we should always remember that even in these difficult economic times we enjoy far more than previous generations could wish for. I have no doubt that he would remind us that we owe a debt to those who struggled and suffered to make all that we enjoy possible. A debt that can only be paid through remembrance. If you had the good fortune to visit Fasanella’s studio during his lifetime, you may have noticed that off in a corner, but within plain sight of every painting that he created, sat a pair of ice tongs.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Vegetarian Lumberjack

A disaster in the making, frozen in time. A logging raft with seven men aboard rounds a sharp turn in the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania sometime around the 1840s. As the men tug desperately at the oars, the raft smashes into a large rock in the center of the river and breaks apart. The men jump for their lives and cling to the raft to avoid being swept downriver by the swift current.

This scene (above), painted by Linton Park about 1874, spent many years as wall decoration in a loggers’ hotel in Burnside, Pennsylvania, near the scene of the accident. Its presence there must have been a searing reminder of the hazards of this way of life. The artist knew logging, to be sure, but research into his life has revealed that he was a most unusual character with a wide range of enterprises.

Linton Park was born in 1826, the last of nine children of Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Family tradition holds that from his earliest days, Park was a confirmed vegetarian, once even scolding the family dog for gnawing a bone. He worked as a logger, carpenter and painter in a number of nearby towns, and ended up in Washington, DC in 1863, working on the crew that painted the new dome of the Capitol Building. A photo of him at this time appears at left.

It wasn’t long before Park had his brush with greatness. In 1864 he joined the Union Army, and served in the DC Infantry assigned to the Presidential Guard. According to a story written in 1905 by his nephew, Park complained directly to President Lincoln about being served salt pork. According to this account, Lincoln replied, “You want me to turn you out to graze like Nebuchadezzar?” To which Park replied, “It would beat salt pork.” Lincoln then wrote out on a sheet of paper, “The bearer, Linton Park, is herewith granted permission to browse wherever he chooses.” If only this paper survived, vegetarians everywhere could have used this Presidential Proclamation to have their food preferences accommodated a century before it was fashionable to do so.

Later in life Park became an inventor, and received patents for a Venetian-type window blind, a “Cottage Window Shade,” and, more in keeping with his dietary preferences, a device for peeling vegetables that he called the “Vegetarian.” He also painted, not just scenes but also wagons, furniture, and signs. His most famous painting is a rollicking, Breugelesque scene of a flax scotching bee, in the National Gallery of Art (above). The logging pictures, which include the Fenimore Art Museum scene of the rafting accident, stemmed from his early days when he crewed on log rafts and even helped build them.

In our scene, among the men tugging at rudders or jumping to avoid certain death, there is one figure at the far right in shirtsleeves who clings to the side of the raft for dear life. Family tradition holds that this is Park himself. One hardly wonders why this creative vegetarian gave up rafting logs in favor of painting them.
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