Monday, December 28, 2009

An American Dream in Sheet Metal and Paint

Humble pieces in the folk art collection often have a special meaning to me owing to their connection with an experience in the field. One day back in the early 1990s, I was at work on an upcoming exhibit at the Fenimore Art Museum when an invitation came across my desk. It was for an opening of an exhibit of local folk art at the Delaware County Historical Association in Delhi, New York, about an hour away. I always keep my eye open for these little local shows because you never know what you might find. One of the pieces featured in the invitation was a striking metal sculpture of a medieval castle.

I was on the road south to Delhi in about ten minutes. The invitation read that the artist was one Joseph Schoell, and the lady at the reception desk told me over the phone that she thought he lived in nearby Margaretville but didn’t have the address. So I thought, how big could Margaretville be? So I headed off to this little village in the Catskills after viewing the exhibition in Delhi.

You would think that, if you had an artist in your village who produced sheet metal sculptures and placed them on his front lawn, that you would be able to direct a stranger to the house. Not so. I drove around Margaretville for about an hour, looking at front lawns and stopping to ask people if they knew a Joseph Schoell or were aware of his lawn environment. No luck. The receptionist must have gotten it wrong, I figured.

Deflated, I reluctantly headed out of town. On a lark, I tried a shortcut over the hills back to Cooperstown. A few miles out of town I was navigating a long, gentle curve in the road (following the path of a creek on the left) when suddenly, on the right, something colorful caught my eye.

A mailbox, but not just any mailbox. A fanciful and brightly painted metal house, complete with dormers and an American flag. In cut metal letters above the house was the name “J. Schoell.” I felt like I had found the Promised Land.

I stopped, of course, introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. Schoell, who were home, and over time became good friends with the family. I learned that Joseph was an immigrant from Hungary who came to the United States following the failed uprising against the Soviets in 1956, settled on Long Island and got a job as a sheet metal worker. After retirement, he bought a summer house in Margaretville and began making whimsical sculptures to place on the lawn. He would make one a year, in the winter, and bring them out to Margaretville every summer.

We caught him at a good time, as he told me he was now too old to keep the summer house and wanted to sell the sculptures. The museum ended up acquiring several, including a great Statue of Liberty (above) and a fanciful castle (left). The last piece I purchased from Joseph, however, is the one that means the most to me.

It’s the mailbox, the first piece I had laid eyes on. To me it represents the joy of discovery and the reminder that roadside America is the most exciting art exhibition: always open and always free. Seeing this piece in the museum always makes me want to hit the road.


  1. In this day of eBay and cybercollecting, I love stories like this.

    As a West Coast collector, I feel a little disconnected from the great repositories of American Folk Art, and so the Internet has certainly helped. I'd dare say that most of my collection has been formed through the Internet. But just taking a road trip and finding great stuff like this is something entirely different, especially when you get the chance to meet the artist.

    Great story!

  2. Thanks, joey. It certainly is a rare privilege to meet artists this way. By the way, if you are anywhere near Oakland, check out the Creative Growth Center for an amazing folk art experience! Their website is :

  3. What a wonderful story. It reminds me of the wild goose chase we went on looking for a particular Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house. We didn't have an address, only a very approximate location, and, as in your case, no one seemed to know where it was. When we had finally given up and were heading home, we chanced upon it.

  4. Thanks, Christine. We also had trouble finding a Wright Usonian house in New Hampshire. They can be even harder to find than folk art, since they are always hidden at the end of long driveways :-)

  5. Terrific story, Paul. I love hearing stories of this sort of serendipity, imagining how much your discovery of Mr. Schoell's work meant to him as well. That must be one of the great feelings you can experience in your field.

  6. You bring up a good point, as always, in considering what it must have meant to the artist. He was pleased, but not surprised, that the museum was interested in his work. The most poignant moment came years later, after his death, when his family visited the museum and saw one of his works with his photo alongside it in our gallery. It literally brought tears to their eyes to see him represented there. That moment always reminds me to consider the people - all of them - behind the artworks that we hold.

  7. Ah Paul, so perhaps a bit more credit due to that organization (Delaware County Historical Association) and the folklorist (Mary Zwolinski) who first documented and showed his work...but you're right, I do love all his work and the passion he brought to it.

  8. Thank you, Linda, for pointing out Mary's valuable work in Delaware County, and for correcting the name of the DCHA. I'll fix it in the post and add a link.

    For those of you readers who don't know, Linda very ably headed the DCHA and deserves a lot of credit herself.

  9. Thanks Paul--I loved my work with folk arts in Delaware County and miss it still--so very nice to read about some of it here!

  10. Mary.zwolinski@gmail.comMay 9, 2010 at 8:24 PM

    For more info see Archie Green's "Tin Men" by U of Illinois Press 2002 which contains some contextual and more relevant info on Joseph Schoell and other tin workers.

  11. This post brought tears to my eyes! I am his granddaughter, Carrie. I remember that visit to see my Opa's sculptures in Cooperstown. It was amazing and strange to see them in a museum, being appreciated by others, alongside a beautiful picture of him. My sister and I grew up with his sculptures, incorporating them into our make-believe stories. When I was little I remember cars stopping in front of the house to get a better look at his work. To be honest, as a little girl I wasn't particularly happy we sold some of the pieces. But then I didn't understand that they would be appreciated by so many more people, not just our family and passersby. He was such an amazing man, and we cherish his pieces, many of which are still on display in the front yard. I also look forward to visiting his work at the Fenimore Art Museum for many many years to come. Thank you Paul, for such a wonderful post!

  12. Thank you, Carrie, for such a heart-felt comment. I'm looking forward to seeing you at the museum when you visit.


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