Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Waving the Flag

What is the difference between good folk art and great folk art? Here’s an instructive comparison for you: two flag gates from two different Upstate New York farms.

Our flag gate is on view at The Farmers’ Museum, just across the road from the Fenimore Art Museum here in Cooperstown. As I was roaming through the museum the other day it caught my eye, as usual, and reminded me of a blog post idea I had some time ago to compare it to the flag gate in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

Ours is a good item, a wonderful example of the creativity of rural folk. And it couldn’t be simpler. The person who fashioned the gate was no doubt inspired by the horizontal slats of wood to create the red stripes of the American flag. From there it was a relatively easy matter to make the field of stars from a rectangular piece of fiberboard, painted blue, and cutouts of stars to populate it. Thirty nine stars in total, if that is a reliable estimation of the gate’s date: both Dakotas were added to the Union in 1889 as the 39th and 40th states. The gate was purchased from a Connecticut dealer in 1975, just before the Bicentennial, with a history of coming from a farm in Davenport, New York, about 30 miles south of Cooperstown. All in all, a nice piece, proudly displayed on the second floor of The Farmers’ Museum’s Main Barn, over the orientation area.

The flag gate at the American Folk Art Museum is another matter altogether. Conceptually similar to our gate, in that it is constructed out of the basic form of a slatted gate, this piece goes far beyond ours in expressive power.

In fact, it is amazing. Where our gate has negative space to stand in for the white stripes, the Folk Art Museum’s gate has white stripes set back from the red ones, giving the gate a three-dimensionality that adds to its vibrancy. But that’s just the beginning. The Folk Art Museum’s gate has stenciled stars set in a beautiful oval pattern. There are 37 stars, suggesting a date of 1876, the nation’s centennial. But most of all, in this gate the artist has carved the horizontal slats so that they actually wave as if the flag in flying in a stiff breeze.

The effect is truly spectacular. Looking at this gate, one gets a sense of energy and patriotic spirit that is rare in utilitarian folk art. This dynamism has made it an icon of the museum since the early 1960s, when it was founded.

We owe the existence of this great piece of folk art to Herbert Waide Hemphill, who had an unparalleled eye for finding folk art in the unlikeliest of places. This gate, thought to be from rural northern New York State, Jefferson County in particular, turned up at an Americana auction surrounded by garden furniture.

These two gates are both remarkable survivals and speak volumes about rural culture in 19th-century America. Yet in one of them, a few crucial visual tricks on the part of the unknown artist has created a truly magnificent work of art.

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