Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Boy Wonder

Anyone who has worked with American folk portraiture knows that while portraits in oil and watercolor are plentiful, it is extremely rare to see one in wood. We have had one such portrait in the Fenimore Art Museum collection for many decades, our “Head of a Boy” carved by Asa Ames in 1847 and given to us by Stephen C. Clark in 1955.

This bust has an odd presence about it. It certainly commands your attention when you are in the gallery or storage area with it. It is life size, and the face is so lifelike and the eyes so intense that it can leave you with the eerie feeling that it is somehow alive. The title suggests that we do not know who the subject was, and for many years I resigned myself to never knowing.

That is, until a 2008 exhibition by Stacy Hollander at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, entitled "Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing." Stacy gathered together a group of Ames carvings (there aren’t many known – only about 12 – but she managed to assemble 9 really terrific pieces) and presented the artist’s work in the context of his tragically short life (you can view the online catalogue to “Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing” here).

Ames worked in western New York State, around Evans in Erie County, carving likenesses of friends and neighbors. He thought enough of his work to list his occupation as “sculpturing” in the 1850 Federal Census (note his fancy carved signature on the underside of the carving). Ames died in 1851 of consumption at the age of just 27.

Despite the lack of biographical information on the artist, Stacy uncovered a stunning new find that, to me, speaks volumes about Ames. It is a photograph of the artist near the end of his life, mallet and chisel in hand, working on a bust that looks like a self portrait. He is surrounded by his sculptures along with other props and, somewhat inexplicably, an unidentified man posing as a sculpted bust at the lower left.
The striking thing about this photo is the resemblance of Ames to our boy. Looking at his profile in the photo, the shape of his face and his hair, and comparing it to our carved bust, makes me wonder if our piece is a self portrait. It’s impossible to say with certainty, and I believe that Stacy thought our bust could perhaps be a sibling of the artist’s if not the artist himself, but the connection has caused me to see our piece in a whole different light than previously.

 One thing’s for sure: it would take a lot of biographical data to equal the value of this photo in enhancing our understanding of the artist.

Artist unidentified; plate marked Scovills (active c. 1839–1850), New York State, 1849–1851, 3 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 5/8 inches. Collection of John T. Ames, Austin, Texas, loaned in loving memory of John T. and LaVeda R. Ames

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Encountering the Florida Highwaymen

When I was a kid our family would take the Easter break from school to make our annual pilgrimage to Florida. We drove down, and the experience of seeing the whole Eastern seaboard left an indelible impression on me. We would stop at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to see the Civil War battlefields, and also in Washington, DC on occasion to see the national monuments. The trip became more and more exotic as we entered the Carolinas and Georgia (the red clay of the latter may as well have been Martian soil) and finally arrived in Florida.

I still have a special fondness for palm trees and sandy beaches, and so these days my wife and I take our own kids south at Easter break to visit my mother on the Gulf Coast. We fly to save time, but the experience while there is not a bit diminished from my childhood (the Gulf Coast being far less developed than the East). Now, of course, I always keep my eye open for anything folk art related.

It was a great stroke of luck that our week in Florida coincided with the final week of an exhibition at the Art Center Sarasota of the paintings of the Highwaymen. This was a group of African American landscape painters who sold their work on the roadsides of Eastern Florida (around Fort Pierce) in the 1950s and 1960s. Over the years their story has made its way into the literature on American folk art, but their paintings have not yet worked their way into major collections that are readily accessible. Thus I had never actually seen a Highwaymen painting.

So I jumped at the chance to drive a half hour from where we were staying to the Art Center to see the exhibition, which featured 30 works from the private collection of Larry Helmuth. The story is fascinating. Sometime in the mid-1950s an instructor at the Lincoln Park Academy, an art school for African Americans, arranged for a promising student named Alfred Hair to study with the dean of Florida landscape painting, a white artist named A. E. "Bean" Backus. Hair learned how to paint the Florida wilderness in brilliant, efficient strokes and bold colors. He went back and taught a group of others to paint the same way, and they sold their works cheaply wherever they could. This way they were able to supplement their incomes and, in some cases, leave the hard labor of the orange groves for a better life.

This is another of those instances in the study of folk art where the history and the art are inseparable. Most of the Highwaymen paintings, on their own, are indistinguishable from inexpensive landscapes you might find at any flea market. The best of them, however, are quite beautiful. To see behind these paintings the American story of struggle to improve one's lot (in this case against daunting odds) is a truly enriching experience.

All of the paintings that I saw in the exhibition were signed by the artist, which tells me a lot about their self image. Therefore it is worth knowing all 25 of the Highwaymen by name, to ensure that you do not pass up one of their works if you happen to run across it at a shop or show. Historians estimate that they painted about 200,000 works, meaning there must be many out there waiting, as their makers did, for someone to acknowledge their worth.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fireside in Virginia: An Excellent Adventure

I found out through a Google Alert for the Fenimore Art Museum that one of the artists in our folk art collection recently received a posthumous honor. Queena Stovall (1887 - 1980) was inducted into the Library of Virginia’s Women in History program in late March, joining a distinguished group of honorees from politics, business, and the arts.

The notice brought back memories of an offbeat and inspired trip in the Spring of 1995. We had received word that several important Queena Stovall paintings were to be auctioned at a small gallery in her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. I had always wanted one of her detailed and colorful paintings for the collection, at least since I first heard about her in the Cooperstown Graduate Program when I took the acclaimed folk art course taught by Louis C. and Agnes Halsey Jones. They knew her well, and had visited her in Virginia during their trip across the United States documenting folk art in the early 1970s. We had even had an exhibition of her work at the Fenimore Art Museum in 1974 (she brought a huge baked Virginia ham to the opening!) and one of our graduate students, Claudine Weatherford, had written her thesis and a book on Queena.

The question was how to get to Lynchburg. When I mentioned the auction to Aggie Jones, then Lou’s widow, the look of excitement and adventure on her face was palpable. She not only wanted to go, but she offered to drive us to Virginia in the Jones’ van: the very one that took them across the US more than 20 years before!

I wish I could describe the look on the auctioneer’s face when we pulled up to the gallery in the old van and asked to hook up to the gallery’s power supply. Bemused? Or simply confused? At any rate, Aggie charmed her way into free electricity and we were there in plenty of time for the auction.

The painting I wanted was “Fireside in Virginia,” (done in 1950 and measuring 18” x 24”) clearly the best and most evocative of the lot. It depicts two women (including Queena’s daughter Judy and her friend) raising their skirts by the fire to warm themselves on a chilly November day. I managed to get the painting for $25,000, just about what I was authorized to spend.

What I didn’t expect was the next item on the block, a pair of fireplace andirons the artist made of the two girls lifting their skirts! How could I resist? The auctioneer made a plea for my bid, knowing that these andirons simply had to go with the painting, and I obliged, getting the andirons for about $900. Afterward, the “Aggie Wagon” managed to get us back safely to Cooperstown, ending a delightful and memorable adventure in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Years later, Queena’s daughter Judy visited us in the museum and saw the painting with the andirons on display. Honestly, she didn’t look any older than when she was painted by her mother nearly 50 years before. She told me, “if you reproduce those andirons every Southern woman would want a pair. We still warm ourselves that way.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Tipsy Mermaid


Sometimes you just have to tilt your head sideways to get a new perspective.

        In the folk art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum we have many pieces that are among the earliest published artworks in the field. The reason for this is that they come from the collection of Jean Lipman, who published the seminal books American Primitive Painting and American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone in the 1940s using many pieces in her collection as illustrations. When our benefactor Stephen C. Clark purchased the Lipman Collection for us in 1950, it gave the museum iconic artworks well known to a generation of folk art enthusiasts.

            One of those pieces is our great Mermaid Garden Fountain. It was found in Baltimore and came with the history that it was displayed in a shop window in the early 19th century as a garden ornament for sale. The style of the carving suggests that it was the work of a professional shipcarver.

            The Mermaid appears on page 150 of Lipman’s Wood, Metal and Stone and she had this to say about it. “A metal tube ran up the body to the mouth, allowing the mermaid to spout water which must have risen and fallen in a curve, repeating in reverse the lines of her sweeping tail… This figure is na├»ve indeed but it is just the type of wood sculpture from which our modern sophisticates have derived inspiration."

            But something is wrong here. When she was photographed for the book, the Mermaid was positioned with a vertical torso. Probably because of this image, this was the way she was exhibited and published in Cooperstown and elsewhere for almost 50 years. About ten years ago I came across a notation buried deep within her research file. It happed to mention that the Mermaid was probably tilted on a 45 degree angle to allow the water to actually spout forward in a graceful arc.

            I was struck by this casual note. Of course! If she was vertical, the water would spout straight up and come back down on the poor Mermaid’s face! Tilted forward, the torso and the tail are incredibly well-balanced, and she resembles the forward-leaning ships’ figureheads of the era.

            So now, after a half century of misrepresentation, she leans again, and illustrates for our visitors the visual dynamism of early folk sculpture. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Gatekeeper of Airlie Gardens

There is nothing more germane to folk art than a sense of place. Folk artists generally do not have the kind of resources or inclination to travel the world, and their rootedness in their communities manifests itself in an intense connection to the people and environment around them. To truly understand some of the nation’s best folk art, you must experience first hand the locale that the artist inhabited or created.

Two items in the news this past week have really given me pause to reflect on this fact. I found out about both via Facebook groups, which tend to make all local news spread further than any national news network. In one story, the city of Los Angeles had plans to close two arts centers that operate at the Watts Towers complex, which would have effectively closed the towers to visitors. The towers, built over a period of several decades by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, are one of the greatest, if not the greatest, environmental achievements by a folk artist in the United States. A community campaign was successful in getting the City Council to reconsider its plans and keep the Towers complex open.

The other news item is the proposed sale of Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina by the New Hanover County Commissioners, who are looking to close a $13 million budget gap. The gardens are described as 67 acres of quintessentially Southern garden history. Established in 1901, the gardens feature a 450-year-old oak and more than 1,000 azaleas. The site means a great deal to generations of North Carolinians who have enjoyed it for its beauty and serenity.

But for anyone who knows American folk art, Airlie Gardens means something more; it was the inspiration for the vibrant, colorful, and intricate paintings of Minnie Evans.

Evans came to Wilmington with her mother in 1893, when she was a year old. Her mother remarried a man who was employed by Pembroke Jones, a wealthy industrialist, and by the age of 17 Minnie found work as a domestic in the Jones household. Jones’ wife, Sarah Green Jones, was the one who established Airlie Gardens.

From 1948 to 1974 Minnie was the gatekeeper at Airlie, collecting admissions and selling her artwork. She painted her delicate and fantastical scenes as a result of a divine vision, but the lushness and greenery of the work clearly evoked the garden setting that she saw every day. She once said, “God has some 600 shades of green, and He dressed the world with them.” To her the natural surroundings were a divine revelation, as one can readily see in her painting in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (above, painted between 1963 and 1967, and donated to FAM by Jane Ferrara).

Minnie sold her artwork at Airlie, and had her first “exhibitions” there. She died in 1987, but her work is so connected with the site that a local artist created a memorial sculpture garden within Airlie in her honor (see Bottle Chapel below) And just last month, on March 10, Airlie hosted a “Green Day” tribute to Minnie with free admission to the Gardens.

It would indeed be a shame to see the Gardens sold to private enterprise, somewhat akin to selling Monet’s Giverny, at least for me. The landscape that inspired a devout and talented gatekeeper deserves to continue to inspire its community.
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