Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Elmira Reformatory: Behind the Prison Walls

January is a great time in New York City for museums and collectors looking to add to their holdings. Two major antiques shows, the Winter Antiques Show and The American Antiques Show, take place concurrently during the third week of January every year. I always go down to the city to see colleagues and peruse the offerings. This year was an exceptional one for new acquisitions for the Fenimore Art Museum. Here is one purchase that brought back memories of my childhood in Elmira, New York.

Elmira is home to many things, but it is best known to many people as the site of the Elmira Reformatory, a prison built in 1876 and situated on a hill just north of the city. I have many memories of driving by the reformatory and looking up at its formidable walls. We never had any contact with the inmates, although every so often you might see low-risk prisoners working in various locations around Elmira, always under guard. We knew – or assumed – that many of the prisoners had been brought to the Reformatory from New York City, but we never gave a thought to who they were. They were anonymous faces behind that massive building fa├žade in the distance.

It took an accidental encounter at The American Antiques Show last week to give me some insight into the people behind the prison walls of my hometown. I was working my way through the show when my cell phone rang. Embarrassed to be taking a call in a busy aisle, I slipped into the nearest booth and went behind a partition to take the call.

While talking on the phone, I looked up at the back side of the partition and absent-mindedly read a label next to an object. The words “Elmira Reformatory” caught my eye. After I hung up I realized what I had surreptitiously found: a carved board about 25" tall depicting WWI soldiers made by an inmate at Elmira in the 1930s for the Reformatory’s Teacher of Social Services, a Peter J. Woloson. The carving had been owned by Mr. Woloson’s son, who was offering it for sale through the dealer.

This was just too coincidental, and the price too reasonable, to pass up. So here it is, now in our collection. The only documented piece of prison art from the Elmira Reformatory that I have seen in my many years of studying New York State folk art. I should note that Mr. Woloson’s son is still alive, and has many memories surrounding this piece. Memories that I intend to capture in the near future and preserve for posterity. My great hope is to find out the name of the inmate who did the carving.
And I’m still shaking my head at the notion that a phone call at just the right moment, and a quick decision to duck into just the right booth, led me behind the prison walls of Elmira for the first time in my life.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Acquisition: The Massachusetts Band Leader

Eric Selch loved American music. He was the founding father of the American Musical Instrument Socitey and the publisher and editor of the monthly classical music magazine Ovation. He even produced a Broadway musical, Play Me a Country Song, in the early 1980s.

Eric also changed the way people thought about the history of music. Such an ethereal art form left little in the way of a tangible history in the eyes of most scholars of the subject. Not so for Eric Selch. He pioneered the study of the material evidence of American music by collecting antique American musical instruments, paper ephemera, rare books, and artworks depicting musical subjects. He organized museum exhibitions on American music as early as the late 1950s.

Eric and his wife Pat spent a good part of their lives in New York, but he had a passion for upstate New York. They bought a grand old mansion outside of Sharon Springs and renovated it into a remarkable country estate. Lucky guests and visitors were treated to an incredible collection housed in a spacious building that reflected the rural roots of our musical traditions. Eric and Pat were gracious and generous hosts, and lent items from their collection freely to museums that needed them for exhibitions and programs, including ours. After Eric’s passing in 2002 the entire collection was given to Oberlin College, to accompany a renowned academic program in the study of American music.

Except for one piece. The Fenimore Art Museum, through the generosity of Eric’s widow Pat, now has in its collection a folk painting from the Selch collection as a fitting tribute to a man who had deep affection for our region of New York State. The painting depicts a uniformed bandsman with black beard and flamboyant hairstyle sits for his portrait wearing a military jacket with Massachusetts Militia buttons. His instrument, a Vienna-valved cornet, is clearly marked with the maker’s name, E.G. Wright of Boston. The painting reportedly came from a family in Norfolk, Connecticut.

It’s a great folk painting, bold and colorful in style. We don’t yet know who painted it, but it is one of the most important images of musical history in the field. We are proud and gratified to have it for the enjoyment of our audience and as a lasting tribute to a scholar who restored the arts of music and song to their rightful place in American history. This painting will be featured prominently in our folk art gallery when the museum opens to the public on April 1st.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King: A View from the Gas Station

It was the winter of 1963-64 and Ralph Fasanella was angry. A progressive almost from birth, he had been a textile worker, truck driver, member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, union organizer, and machine shop worker. At present he owned a gas station in the Bronx with two other friends who, like him, could not get a job because of constant harassment by the FBI for their radical backgrounds. Ralph pumped gas for the customers, which allowed him to meet people and share their daily issues, joys, and concerns.

He had also been painting for about 15 years. Large, colorful, detailed works meant for public spaces but confined for now to a small apartment. The works celebrated working-class life and also explored politics and history. Recent events had given the paintings an edge they did not have previously.

It was the combination of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 and the nomination of arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in early 1964 to head the Republican Party Presidential ticket that raised the artist’s ire. Worse than that, actually. He felt a coup of sorts had taken place, orchestrated by powerful forces behind the scenes. Reminiscent of the Fascist coups of the 1930s.

He feverishly painted his thoughts and emotions. The work that resulted, a large 45” x 90” canvas entitled “American Tragedy,” is shown here (although we have 9 major Fasanellas in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, this one is privately owned). It shows the ill-fated Kennedy motorcade at the right, and a Goldwater parade at left. In the center is a composite figure – part cowboy, part businessman, and part klansman – representing the sinister forces at work in America. The painting is very dark, very pessimistic. Villains and victims abound.

Except for one.

A detail at the upper left shows the unmistakable figure of Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. Surrounded by death and destruction, yet resolute in his forward-looking stance with throngs of people behind him. A small measure of hope in a hopeless picture. Four years before his own assassination.

Who would have thought in 1964 that one day we would celebrate a national holiday for that tiny figure off to one corner of a major historical painting? This painting has always been, to me, a reminder of the power of right over might, even against all the odds.

It’s amazing what you can learn from a gas station attendant who can handle a paintbrush.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hudson River Steamboat Portraits: The Majesty Masks the Mayhem

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you already know that, beneath the placid surface of these beautiful works of art there lurk some strange and wonderful histories. What could be more lovely than a majestic steamboat gracefully making its way up the Hudson River, flags flapping in the breeze, verdant hills and fluffy clouds completing the scene? Who wouldn’t want to be on that boat, on that gorgeous day in 1845?

Me, for one, knowing what I do.

The steamer Niagara (oil on canvas, 34 ¼” x 56 ¼”) in the Fenimore Art Museum collection was painted in 1852 by James Bard, one of a pair of brothers who made their reputation in New York City by providing ships’ portraits to captains and ship owners from 1830 to 1890. We hosted a traveling exhibition of their work in 1998 (see photo at bottom). The Niagara was 265 feet long and was used as a day boat for the New York, Albany and Troy Line. It was launched in 1845 under the command of Albert DeGroot (pictured here), a self-made young man who grew up on Staten Island as a neighbor of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was one of the great steamboat captains, builders, and ship owners of the day, and took a liking to the young Albert and nurture his career.

DeGroot, like many steamboat captains, wanted to succeed by attracting customers for his boat. At this time, one of the most effective ways to do this was to be able to advertise faster shipping times for people and goods. The most effective way to get faster shipping times was to add steam to already over-taxed boilers.

Can you tell where this is going?

In 1847, while racing a competitor, the Roger Williams, DeGroot directed his engineer to put in more steam. When told that this was impossible, he ordered the gears to be changed so as to double their velocity. The steam chimney exploded, killing two firemen and injuring seven passengers. That’s right, he was racing another steamboat while on his appointed route between New York and Albany.

The newspapers had a field day. The Ulster Republican called for the officers of the Niagara to be convicted of manslaughter, and laid on the sarcasm: “human life is cheap, and steamboat captains can sport with it as they please.” DeGroot, like many other captains of the era, was not removed from his post, and in fact went on to command another vessel, the Reindeer, that in 1851 broke the Albany-New York record with a time of seven hours and 27 minutes. In fact, there are many accounts of him that are glowing in their praise of his charm and concern for his passengers.

Fortunately for DeGroot, he had left the command of the Reindeer before she blew up in September of 1852, killing several passengers. This was about the time DeGroot commissioned our painting of his Niagara on its launch day, with its steam chimneys gently throwing sparks up into the air, and its passengers enjoying the scenery from the deck seemingly without a care in the world.
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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Philadelphia Wireman

I have to admit that I just don’t know what to think of the Philadelphia Wireman. He is one of the most celebrated Outsider artists in America today, yet nothing is known about him (if, in fact, the artist is male). If anything, I think the mystery surrounding his identity, along with the undeniable power of the artwork ascribed to him, add considerable allure to the various notions that have rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Let’s start at the beginning. Back in 1982, an art student in Philadelphia was scouting around the street on trash night in an African American neighborhood on South Street when the student found a large group of unusual assemblages in boxes and bags meant for trash pickup. More than 1200 pieces of sculpture, in fact, most of which were constructions of tightly wound wire with bits of street detritus stuck in between the strands. All representing the singular obsession of a single artist, by the looks of them. Perhaps even an entire life’s work, tossed aside after the artist’s death.

The student brought the entire body of work to Fleisher Ollman Gallery, specialists in Outsider art, and the gallery set about cementing the unknown artist’s reputation through exhibitions, catalogues, and sales to important collections. (One of their pieces is illustrated at the lower left; a piece from the Dean Jensen Gallery is at the right). Comparisons were made to Native American medicine bundles, African American memory jugs, and African fetish objects. The assumption that these works were the product of an African American male (gender assumed by the strength required to manipulate the materials) seems to prevail at every turn. Due to the efforts to characterize and promote the work, the Philadelphia Wireman has been exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Art, the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

Quite a lot of recognition for an artist with a biographical blank slate. All of the speculation about the Wireman is within the bounds of reason, but so are other scenarios. My favorite being that this is the work of a art student who couldn’t get an exhibit to save his life, and thus tossed out his work out of sheer frustration.
A few years ago some generous donors gave the Fenimore Art Museum a small, 6" high piece by the Philadelphia Wireman. I gladly accepted it, knowing that the works were powerful and intriguing and the debate over their background spoke volumes about the attraction and the challenges of Outsider art in America (you can find out more about this type of art here). You can see both sides of it in the first two photos at the top of this post. The trouble is that I have a hard time showing the piece in our galleries, so it hasn’t been out on view yet.

I mean, what do I say about the piece or the alleged artist? I’m comfortable with some speculation in my exhibit labels, but this seems to go beyond the bounds of what I consider responsible conjecture. Nevertheless, it is a great study piece, and a genuine art world phenomenon. I think.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Veronica Terrillion at the Fenimore Art Museum

I usually wait a few weeks before posting anything relating to something that has already found its way onto these pages. My latest post, on Veronica Terrillion and her “Woman-Made” environment, however, provoked so many responses (mainly on my Facebook page) that I thought it would be nice to show the individual artworks of hers that we acquired in the early 1990s.

In my post I alluded to a 3D painting that was brought to my attention by a gallery in Buffalo. It’s a depiction of Veronica’s father sledding logs in the Adirondacks. Here is a couple of photographs that show the inventiveness of the work, which has a base of about 20” x 24”, from its abstracted naturalism of the landscape and horses to the mixed media dimensionality of the figure and the sled. When I put it on view I always show it on about a 30 degree slant so that viewers can appreciate the 2D and 3D aspects of the painting. This is the piece that made me want to visit Veronica’s environment in person.

The next two pieces came directly from the artist or her family. I mentioned that when Veronica graciously invited me into her home I noticed hand-made floor mats made of a layer of concrete and brightly painted. She made portable versions on wood panel of one of these, “Spring Runoff,” which she generously donated to the Fenimore Art Museum. Here it is. Again, her ability to express the vibrancy and abundance of her natural surroundings is astonishing. This piece is about 18” x 30”.

Lastly, a few years after I first met Veronica, her son Richard offered us a sculpture of hers depicting the crucifixion. I immediately bought it, as it made sense to have an example of a work reflecting her devout religious beliefs. The crucifix, seen here, is remarkable similar to the large one on her property, seen in the photo from my first post. It is, like the floor mats in her house, made of layers of concrete molded by hand and painted. It always reminds me of the great Proletarian novel, “Christ in Concrete,” by Pietro di Donato, about the sufferings of the working man.

The concrete Christ also makes me recall the first time I met Veronica, a woman in her 80s, hunched over a large bin with her hands deep into a mixture of concrete, sand, and water. Reshaping her world and emphatically asserting her place in it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Woman-Made Garden

One of my first posts was about those special places that represent a folk artists attempt to draw you into their world in a real, physical setting. Called Folk Environments, these places can provide an incredible experience as you inhabit a landscape of dreams and visions. Environmental folk art is a worldwide phenomenon, but you shouldn’t discount what may be in your own area. It is also largely a man-made art form, owing to the immense physical challenge of reshaping the land. But you should never assume that a woman-made environment can’t be as ambitious in design and execution as any man’s.

The best example of a female folk artist realizing her vision for an environment is Veronica Terrillion, an artist I had the pleasure of meeting in the early 1990s at her home in Indian River, New York. My first introduction to her work came from a lecture I attended by Varick Chittenden, the Executive Director of a group called Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY). The slides he showed were striking, and it was particularly interesting to me that Mrs. Terrillion made artworks of singular, individual importance in addition to creating a large environment. I was, at the time, very interested in expanding our folk art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum to include more 20th-century artists, so Mrs. Terrillion was definitely on my list of people to meet if possible.

After making some inquiries, I found a great piece of Terrillion’s artwork in a gallery in Buffalo. There were several unusual and appealing elements to the piece. It was kind of a three-dimensional painting, a painted canvas with sculptural elements, which I had never encountered before. The work was also highly personal, as it depicted the artist’s father sledding logs in the Adirondack Mountains. I bought it for the collection.

There is no way to fully appreciate this piece, however, without meeting the artist in person. That summer I took the two-hour drive up to Indian River and met Veronica Terrillion. She was amazing. Almost 85 years old and still making art. In concrete. She was very gracious (most Adirondack people are) and showed me her “woman-made” house and garden. She built the cedar log house, by the way, and dug out a big pond (renting a backhoe) as a setting for her concrete sculptures.

And what a setting it was, three acres that included a menagerie of animals and religious figures and scenes from her life (that's her family below, including a poignant detail of her holding the baby she lost in infancy). Overseeing the whole landscape was, appropriately, St. Francis of Assisi, who looked very much at home in the north woods of New York State. Veronica had been a devout Catholic her whole life, as well as a lover of nature. The house was equally amazing, especially the painted “floor mats,” actually rectangular areas coated with concrete and painted in lively, abstracted patterns. One caught my eye; it was a representation of the annual spring runoff, complete with birds and flowers and blue for the water.

Veronica noticed my reaction. She immediately pulled out a painting on wood panel of the same scene, and gave it to me for the museum. Veronica died in 2003 at the age of 95, and her family still allows people to see the environment by appointment.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Big Whig Banner

In an earlier post I talked about the profound impact of the Erie Canal on the folk art of New York State, focusing on the landscapes of Thomas Chambers. Among the other pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection that illustrate this phenomenon is our great Whig Campaign Banner by Terence Kennedy, painted in the 1840s. This piece came to us from the collection of Elie Nadelman, the modernist sculptor who collected folk art in the 1920s and 1930s and even opened one of the first folk art museums in the United States in Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, at the same time.

The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, revolutionized the way New Yorkers did business, as it allowed for much faster transportation of wares into and out of the state. Folk artists, like the trained landscape painters who preceded them, often depicted the canal, working from images that were disseminated through various print media and exploiting the new wonder visually for both its symbolic and aesthetic value.

Terence J. Kennedy (1820-after 1879) of Auburn, New York, included a vignette of the Erie Canal in our large campaign banner (about 70” wide) . This painting was probably the center section of a large rectangular banner carried in parades or at political gatherings during the 1840s. In this painting, the Erie Canal is of great importance – not only does it dominate the right side of the banner, but it helps to underscore the Whig belief that the development of coastal and internal transportation and the protection of home industries were vital interests to the growing Republic.

The banner also includes powerful symbols of a resurgent America poised to address its domestic challenges. Images of commerce, both maritime and land-based, appear in the ships at the left and the train at the right. Other symbols of agriculture and industry appear in the tools and equipment at the bottom of the canvas. Hovering over all of these images is, of course, a screaming bald eagle, representing the bold spirit of the country.

Heavy duty political propaganda, to be sure. But it is significant that the Erie Canal, which inspired a frenzy of canal construction in the northeastern United States, had come to symbolize America’s ingenuity and progress as a nation. Like so many other accomplishments of national importance, the canal was seized upon by political parties and used to every advantage. And folk artists like Terrence Kennedy readily and creatively supplied the images that Americans look to in order to decide the fate of the nation.
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