Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Carving Out a Memory

Homer Benedict lived for more than the entire 20th century, but he spent his later years recreating an artistic record of a single seven-year span in his youth. He was born at the dawn of the century, in 1900, and at the age of eight went to live and work on the 240-acre Benedict farm in the village of Treadwell, New York, in Delaware County. Homer’s time spent there, which lasted until 1925, stayed with him his entire life. Picture an eight-year-old boy growing to the adulthood in daily contact with the machinery, the animals, and the elements that were so much a part of agricultural life. In 1988, at the age of 88, Homer began to make sculptures that reflected the experience.

At first glance, the pieces he created look clean, simple, and straightforward. A man working a horse-drawn cultivator Another man sledding rocks. Another working a large roller. Each figure is carved as a flat form with penciled facial features and costume details.

The works are much more subtle, however, as becomes evident when you look closely at the nuances. The figures lean into the plows they work. They pull gently or firmly at the reins of the horses they command. They sit upright with feet placed firmly before them to steady themselves on the machinery. Homer knew from experience the physical fundamentals of farm work. If it was a sport, he could have coached it.

I never met Homer, but fortunately there was some very good work done about him during his lifetime (he died in 2006 at the age of 106!). Ellen Damsky produced a catalogue, “The Folk Art of Homer Benedict” for the Delaware County Historical Association in 1995, and john Gruen conducted numerous interviews with the artist and wrote an extended article about him.

In 2007, the Benedict family gave fifteen of Homer’s pieces to the Fenimore Art Museum for our folk art collection. Like the artist himself, these pieces speak eloquently of the dignity of labor. Despite the acclaim he received in his later years, Homer never understood why he became so well known for his artwork. He said at one exhibition opening:

“I don’t see the sense of it. I’m just a common old cuss! I can’t make up my mind that I’m anything special. All I can say is I’m interested in what I do. I never thought anything about this stuff when I was growing up. I can hardly believe I’ve done all this stuff. I’ve got too much to do. I’m lucky to be able to do it.”

Homer Benedict at his home in South Kortright. Photograph by T.M. Bradshaw

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nantucket Angel

Our little Angel weathervane is really a transcendent piece. It’s so unassuming, yet so emblematic of the spirit of folk art that it has taken on a life of its own as a symbol. Over the years it has been our logo as well as an image heralding any number of Americana sales and shops from New England to California. Not bad for a one-inch-thick painted board.

Uncommon luck and persistence, as usual, brought this angel to us. In fact, luck must have followed folk art collector Jean Lipman around where she went in the 1930s and 1940s. She couldn’t open a door, lift up a cover, or look up in the sky without finding some lost and lonely piece that was destined to become a national icon. Our Angel was no exception.

In 1946 Mrs. Lipman visited the island of Nantucket, some thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. When she disembarked she was likely already within eyesight of yet another great find. Perched above the peak of one end of a boathouse on Old North Wharf, a block or so from where contemporary visitors disembark for the island, sat our Angel. She overlooked the harbor and could be seen from any number of directions. Her prominence is significant to me in that she must have been seen by countless thousands of people before Jean Lipman recognized what a masterpiece she was and rescued her for posterity.

The vast majority of weathervanes have no history. Those that do are only very rarely photographed in their original locations, making such data priceless. In the case of our Angel, there are TWO period photographs that show her atop the Old North Wharf Boathouse. One is by Samuel Chamberlain (above), and was published in his 1939 photograph book, Nantucket. Our Angel is very hard to see in this photo; just barely visible off to the far right.

Fortunately, another photographer working at about the same time, Louis Davidson, took an image of the boathouses from closer up and at a different angle. This image is breathtaking in its clarity and unquestionable verification of our weathervane’s original location. The photograph even allowed us to identify the specific boathouse on which she rests. It was called “Independence,” and was owned by the Everett family from Hingham, Massachusetts.

The information is as helpful as it is rare, of course. But ultimately it is, for me, the image of our Angel in its natural habitat – the coastal landscape of New England – that says the most about her unknown artist’s masterful embellishment of a truly picturesque harbor.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Girl Next Door

She may well be the tallest young lady in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection. This full length portrait of Laura Hall, painted in western Massachusetts in 1808, always turned heads when she was exhibited high up on the wall in our two-story stair hall at the entrance to the museum. People probably never realized what it took to get her up there; a scaffold that was so difficult to assemble it had to be done in the winter when the museum is closed. Laura has spent most of her time in storage these past few years, but is coming out again this fall, albeit at eye level, in our new exhibit, “Picturing Women.” In writing this blog post about her, I found out something that never occurred to me before, something startling and close to home.
Laura grew up in Cheshire, Massachusetts, just north of Pittsfield in the Berkshire Mountains. She was born to a tavern keeper and his wife in 1787 (their portraits by this same artist are in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia). She married an attorney from North Adams in 1810, and they moved west to Syracuse, New York, in 1816. Her husband ran a seminary in Syracuse for more than twenty years.

For many years, the artist of this portrait was known only as J. Brown, so  named for his partial signature on a number of Massachusetts portraits done between 1806 and 1808. It was obvious that he was an itinerant artist who plied his trade in the newly developed settlements from Williamstown to Plymouth. J. Brown painted likenesses that were compelling in their vigorous facial modeling and striking reddish brown coloration. 
And no, he didn’t paint the bodies in the winter and the heads from life; see my post on that common myth. It seems clear from Laura’s portrait that the elegantly embroidered Empire gown and details such as the Windsor chair and jewelry were all part of her life. Even the lovely slippers on her curiously splayed feet. Mr. Brown could paint precise details but had difficulty with anatomical correctness.

But with a name as common as J. Brown, it didn’t seem like there was any hope of positively identifying him. That all changed in 1996 when a portrait came up for sale that was obviously in this same style and with an inscription on the back signed by James Brown. Research by Elizabeth Warren published in the American Folk Art Museum’s Folk Art magazine clarified the lingering questions of attribution and outlined the search for more information on this elusive artist.

The surprise I mentioned earlier? After Laura and her husband left Syracuse in 1833 they settled on a modest farm and raised their seven children. The farm was in Deerfield, New York, a scant five miles from my front door. Come see Laura eye-to-eye this fall in “Picturing Women.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Building a Peaceable Kingdom

A true peaceable kingdom is much more than the sum of its parts. Visitors to the Fenimore Art Museum have for decades admired our two iconic paintings by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks (the earlier version, ca. 1825-30, depicted above), both depicting the artist’s vision of the Biblical prophecy in Isaiah that was central to Quaker belief. What most people don’t realize is how Hicks put together his unique image from available sources to create a unique whole.

Hicks had a complicated childhood. He was born in bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1780 into an Anglican family that was pro-British during the Revolutionary War. His father was forced into seclusion because of these leanings, and his mother died in 1781. Edward was sent to board with Quakers David and Elizabeth Twining in Newtown, where he served an apprenticeship with a coach maker when he turned 13. There he learned to paint in a stylized, sign painter’s style that would influence his whole body of work. He also became a respected Quaker minister with the Middletown Monthly Meeting.

In the early 1820s Edward developed his idea for painting an homage to Quaker beliefs. He adapted a popular engraving from the Bible, Richard Westall’s Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch (published in 1815, abvoe), into an American landscape, and incorporated a lettered border that showcased his sign painting experience. The verse on the border was paraphrased from Isaiah 11:6-9 (which the Westall engraving was meant to illustrate), which reads, in part, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling [a] together; and a little child will lead them.” Hicks’s version is cleverly rhymed, as you can see in the early Peaceable Kingdom our Museum is fortunate to own. It mentions all of the animals alluded to in the Biblical verse.

Hicks also throws in an extra detail. The last two lines of his verse read: “When the great PENN his famous treaty made,/With indian chiefs beneath the elm- trees shade.” William Penn (1644 – 1718) was a hero to Quakers for his establishment of religious tolerance, equality of men and women, and fair treatment of Native Americans. To Hicks, Penn had created a Peaceable Kingdom on earth, and thus his inclusion here was warranted.

But Edward went further than mentioning Penn: he actually put him in the picture making his famous treaty with the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, in 1682. To create this image, Edward looked to a popular engraving, found in many Quaker households, of Benjamin West’s 1771 painting of Penn’s Treaty (the original painting is in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). You can tell that Edward used the engraving as his source because the image is reversed from the original painting.

The result is a potent and beautiful summation of Quaker beliefs, delivered as eloquently as any sermon. IWe perhaps learn as much about the artist from his inscription on the reverse of our Peaceable Kingdom, where he writes, “Edw. Hicks To his adop[t]ed sister Mary Leedom & her Daughters didicates this humble peiee of his art of Painting.” It is true that Edward had a great many gifts, generosity among them as can be seen by the fact that he gave this painting to a loved one, but it is his humility that I think defines him more. Hubris is antithetical to a harmonious world.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Civil War Army Hospital In the Round

I live for those rare moments when the scenes in the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection can be understood in far greater depth owing to the emergence of new information or images. Here is another of those works which have, over the years, caught my eye only fleetingly as I was searching the storage racks for more important pieces. I can recall thinking what a strange architectural rendering it was, and how odd the building looked compared to our plethora of farmscapes and house portraits from the nineteenth century. Unlike the staid farmhouses in many of our paintings, this complex radiates outward from a central courtyard in all directions.

It certainly looked like an institutional portrait, of course, but I never gave it much thought until now. The main reason for this new-found interest in the piece was finding period photographs of the site online. Our piece is a small oil painting (about 10" x 25") by an unknown artist depicting the Mower U. S. Army Hospital in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. We have known for a long time that it was based on a lithograph of the hospital issued in 1863 (below). We didn’t know, or didn’t realize until recently, that the Library Company of Philadelphia has an online database of images of the hospital from the same time period by Philadelphia photographer John Moran.

The Mower U. S. Army Hospital was opened in January 1863 to serve the Union army, and at the time it was one of the largest Federal military hospitals. The Union wounded were sent from Southern battlefields by train to Mower from 1863 until the end of the war in 1865. The hospital had 3,600 beds, and treated more than 20,000 wounded or ill soldiers during the course of the war. It was a state-of-the-art medical facility, with indoor plumbing and hot water, isolation wards for patients with infections, and a centralized storage area for speed and efficiency in treating the patients.

The design was really ideal. Architect John McArthur, Jr. (who also designed Philadelphia’s City Hall) created a central compound from which no fewer than 47 wings radiate outward. The Reading Railroad went right to its front door.

Our little oil is a pretty good rendition of the lithograph, with some nice touches that the artist added, including emphasizing the patterns created by the radiating buildings and enhancing the landscape around the complex. But the real treat is comparing the period photographs with the renderings of both the artist and lithographer. The hospital was a real place, and its visceral reality adds depth and meaning to its artistic representation.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Great Goose

Every fall around this time I get a glimpse of the cycle of nature that has been, for generations, the catalyst for the creation of some of the most compelling works of folk art. Driving home from work, I pass by some beautiful wetlands that provide temporary resting and feeding grounds for flocks of Canada Geese. I hear their honks in the air and through the trees as I pass near these bodies of water, and later in the season I can’t help but gaze admiringly at their V-formations in the sky as they head southward. They are living reminders to me of a great 19th-century decoy in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Our goose is big; about 30” long and 16” high. Its maker is unknown, although it appears to carry a monogram, “HB,” on the bottom.

It happens that in the past few weeks I have been reading James Michener’s 1978 novel Chesapeake, which centers around the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in particular the Choptank River. Michener dwells on the importance of the annual migration of Canada Geese to this region and its effect on the local economy and ways of life. He goes so far as to say that the Eastern Shore had two seasons: “Geese is here,” and “geese ain’t here.”

He even devotes an entire chapter to a single family of these geese, describing their travails in surviving predators in the Canadian Subarctic, taking their long flight south using a natural GPS ingrained from centuries of seasonal migration, arriving in the marshes of the Choptank River in numbers close to one million, and facing the savvy hunters of the region who used all means available to attempt to out-smart them. These means included strategically placed blinds, well-trained Chesapeake dogs, floating skiffs (the photo here shows an example of one from the Shelburne Museum), reliable guns, and, of course, well-carved decoys.

Most of the time, the geese were too smart for even the best hunters. Their natural wariness, and keen eyesight, allowed them to spot a musket from a great distance. It’s amazing to me that they learned to differentiate between a man with a gun and one without. They did not fear the latter.

The take from the goose hunting season was not sizeable until the hunters brought out the big guns – literally. In response to the market demand for goose in the deluxe hotels of nearby cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, hunters began using large guns that took an entire skiff to manage. The rule of thumb was “aim the skiff, not the gun.” A single shot could kill nearly 100 geese. By the turn of the 20th century, the seasonal population was down from almost one million to less than 30,000, and the big guns were banned in the 1910s. Eventually, the geese came back to the Maryland shore, but it took decades.

And so our Canada goose decoy stands not only for a historical way of life and a means of reaping a subsistence form nature, but also for the excesses of man and the effort to strike a balance to preserve the natural beauty and bounty of one of the nation’s most remarkable out-of-the-way places. To those of us who are fleeting witnesses to the long journey of the geese, it really brings meaning to our brief encounters with these great birds, meaning that spreads out both geographically and historically.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Placido Tobasso, Utica's Forgotten Folk Artist

The brightly painted concrete figures must have startled passersby by the way they stood out against the drab industrial landscape. In the 1950s, the upstate New York city of Utica was thriving economically and teeming with immigrants. One of them, a retired bricklayer and mason from the Abruzzi region of central Italy created this improbable sculpture park sometime before his death in 1958. Not a trace of it remains today.

Very little is known about the artist. Placido Tobasso was born in Italy in 1904. It is not known when he immigrated to Utica, but he lived on Hubbell Street, two blocks from the factories on Broad Street in the eastern part of the city. Most of Tobasso’s working life was spent laying bricks and cutting stone, until poor health forced him into early retirement.

Tobasso’s health did not deter him from realizing what must have been a powerful desire to express himself creatively in the materials he knew best: plaster and brick. The American Hardwall Plaster Company, located on Broad Street, often gave out broken blocks and torn bags of plaster to worthy people, and Tobasso was among those able to receive building materials for free. Unlike those who needed and used these materials to build homes and churches, Tobasso used them to create a series of monumental figures on city property for all to see.

He chose a vacant lot on Broad Street at the foot of Mohawk Street. The latter is a major thoroughfare through East Utica, so the sculptures would have been visible for several blocks. Here Tobasso fashioned large statues of historical figures of his adopted homeland, including the American Indian chief Yahnundasis, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and a Civil War soldier. He represented his ancient Roman heritage with a statue of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and a figure of a fierce winged lion. Lastly, at one end of the assemblage, Tobasso included a large statue of Christ blessing the immigrant neighborhood he overlooked.

The sculptures were remarkably powerful in their rigidity and strong patterning. Characteristically, many people did not understand the artist or the value of his work, but Tobasso had a number of knowledgeable and influential proponents. The renowned sculptor Henry DiSpirito said in a 1958 interview, “He was a great artist. He worked where sculpture should be – in the open, under the sky.” Richard McLanathan, director of Utica’s celebrated art museum at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, also admired Tobasso’s work. When he hosted the great art collector Maxim Karolik (whose American art collection is the foundation for the holdings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) he insisted that they see the Tobasso sculptures. Karolik took one look at the figures and exclaimed, “What spirit!”

It’s a pity that the Utica city officials did not share this view. In the 1960s, at the height of the cultural destruction of Urban Renewal, Tobasso’s artwork was destroyed. Fortunately for posterity, these works had been captured (along with pictures of the artist at work) in a series of photographs in the 1950s by the Utica photographer Dante Tranquille. These images speak eloquently of Tabasso’s passionate and public realization of a personal devotion. Nestled among the massive and impersonal industrial complexes, Tobasso’s sculpture park stood for years as an improbable – and all-too-fragile – affirmation of the humanity that toiled within.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jesus Christ the Iceman

It’s Labor Day weekend, which means my traditional blog post on the great folk painter of the American working class, Ralph Fasanella. I was reminded of this the other day when the American Folk Art Museum in New York posted one of their Fasanella paintings, Iceman Crucified #3, on its Facebook page in honor of what would have been Fasanella’s 96th birthday. Having done a lot of work on this artist, from my dissertation at Boston University to an exhibition and book in 2001 for the Fenimore Art Museum, I feel obligated to elaborate on the meaning of this provocative work.

As we get older, I suspect, we all ruminate to some degree on the sacrifices our parents endured to make our lives possible. Sometimes it is a coming to terms with a complex relationship. Such was the case with Fasanella, who as a young boy was made to work long hours in the pre-dawn darkness of New York City to deliver ice with his father, Joe Fasanella. He was not paid to do so, of course. The resulting tensions between father and son were, unfortunately, one of the defining characteristics of Fasanella’s childhood.
As an adult, however, and with more understanding of the struggles of working people gleaned from his years as a labor organizer, anti-fascist, and artist, Fasanella saw things differently. Inspired by an old proletarian novel, Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, he began to see his father as a martyr who gave his health, strength, and sanity to try to provide for his family. The result was a powerful series of paintings focusing on the central image of Jesus Christ in the image of his father as an iceman.

The painting in the American Folk Art Museum is the third of this series, and a crucial part of the evolution of the imagery. Parting from the iconic, frontal, stiff crucifixions in his first two paintings, here Fasanella positions the crucified iceman inside the icebox that defines his world. Importantly, the icebox is being lowered to street level by workmen (including the artist in his blue shirt!) to be replaced by a new Westinghouse refrigerator.

The sense of loss is palpable and overwhelming; not only is the iceman nailed to the cross, but his whole way of life is being left behind. Fasanella actually lost his father twice. Joe left the family when Ralph was young and went back to the town of his birth in Italy. He died just a short time after this painting was done in 1956.
So what we’re seeing here is not only a universal statement about the sacrifices of working people, but also a very personal sense of loss and an attempt to reconcile a mix of emotions. All in the visual language of the masses.

The most poignant passage in this work is the small inscription in the middle of the stickball diamond sketched in chalk on the street below the iceman. It must have been added later, after Fasanella received word of his father’s death in Italy. It reads: “Joe the iceman is dead. No game today.” The artist later recalled, “I cried when I put that in.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tribute to a Ship Captain's Wife

Imagine a relief carving in stone that was every bit as detailed and every bit as good as a watercolor of the same subject. That’s what I encountered by chance in a rural cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard last week. The cemetery is tucked away along a narrow two-lane road just north of West Tisbury, in the center of the island. We stopped there – ignoring the “are you kidding?” complaints from our teenaged daughter – hoping to find some good old fashioned New England winged death heads. We found those aplenty, but the real surprise was this pictorial scene of a mourner at an urn, more detailed and figural than any I have seen previously.

In fact, it reminded me immediately of our watercolor mourning pictures of the same era. The stone carving was done for a ship captain’s wife, Polly Mantor, who died in 1817. In addition to the lettering the border treatments, and the weeping willow, the carver set aside an arched vignette near the top of the gravestone for the mourning picture. It shows a classically garbed mourner, who at first appears to be weeping, standing beside (indeed leaning on) a large urn with the inscription “O! Death.”

There are astonishing details here for the medium: the flowing shawl or scarf that curls its way around the mourner; the rendering of her hair and facial features; and the pattern of the background, which resembles a period wallpaper. Looking closely, I also noticed that her left hand is not holding her forehead in the conventional weeping pose, but rather is pointing upward in a gesture seen as a disembodied hand on many of these stones with the saying “Just Beyond.”

I compared this carving to two of watercolors done about the same time, circa 1810-1820, by Eunice Pinney of Connecticut. The first of these, her memorial to herself (that’s another story!) shows the mourning scene iconography that gained popularity in the United States after the death of George Washington in 1799. The second, entitled simply “Two Women,” is not a mourning picture at all, but show the same pattern seen in the background of the carving, only here as a floor covering.

Polly Mantor died at the young age of 31 in 1817. Her husband, Captain Jeremiah Mantor, obviously paid well for this elaborate stone. He outlived her by 44 years, and died in 1861 at the age of 84. In a culture surrounded by death, it appears that the visual means of coping with loss were many and varied, and folk artists were there with both brush and chisel to provide tangible expressions of an all-too-common grief.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin