Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finding Japan in Minnesota

Folk artists have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and creating images that appeal to the audience of the moment. Time and time again in these pages I have written about folk artists who find and meet the market demand for inexpensive, bold, colorful, and meaningful images. You could say that folk artists are opportunistic in the manner in which they pursue their trade. And although their products may be lightly regarded in their own time, they acquire great value over time as we come to see how resourceful and beautiful these works really are, and how well they shed light on historical periods long past.

This isn’t only true of American folk art, but also of folk art around the world. I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This encyclopedic art museum, with holdings from antiquity to the present and from all parts of the globe, had two modest sized galleries that intrigued me. One was a gallery of American folk art: more on that in a future post. The other was a complete surprise.

As I was wandering through the byzantine galleries of the museum, I happened to stroll through the Asian wing, admiring the many large and intricate hanging scroll paintings and huge folding screens with scenes painted on them. I don’t know much about Asian art (the collection was primarily Chinese and Japanese) but I do enjoy the aesthetic of form and pattern, so it was a pleasant walk-through.

Then I took a detour into a gallery that was a bit off the beaten path. The room was full of Japanese folk paintings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and the similarities of circumstance with American folk art were striking. Apparently there was a major roadway (called the Tokaido roadway) that linked Kyoto with the military stronghold of Edo (now Tokyo) as early as the 1600s. On this highway was a town called Otsu, where travelers often stopped for a respite on their journey.

Sometime in the early part of the century, enterprising artists started creating inexpensive and small hanging scroll paintings to sell to these wayfarers. None of these artists are known by name, but the works they made and sold are vintage folk art: simple, direct, bold, colorful, sometimes humorous, and memorable. Some of the works feature pagodas, other tell funny stories about everything from Gods and Demons to daily life at the time. It was a tradition, and a market, that lasted for three centuries.
These works are called Otsu-e, or pictures of Otsu (e means “picture” in Japanese). As the demand for these works grew, artists started innovating in production, just like their American counterparts. They used stencils to speed the imaging of particular forms, much the way the American mural painter Rufus Porter advised Americans to do the same in New England the 1840s. And they sought out well-traveled byways like the Florida Highwaymen on the 20th century.

The works on display at the Minneapolis Institute included (in order of their appearance here) one of the Pagoda paintings (from the late 19th century), and several others that depicted the God of Thunder trying to retrieve the drum he accidentally dropped into the ocean (from the late 18th-mid 19th century), the God of Agriculture humorously trying to shave the elongated forehead of the God of Longevity and Wisdom (early 18th century), a cat offering a mouse a hot pepper to make him drink sake and become inebriated, and a falconer (both early 18th century).
I’m a firm believer that any museum that claims to be encyclopedic must have folk art represented in its galleries. These humble works of Otsu-e were the only glimpse into the daily life of ordinary people in the entire Asian wing, as far as I could tell. The folk art  of any culture has a collective power that speaks for the vast masses for whom art was a welcome respite on a long and dusty highway.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Squirrel Cage

There is a large body of folk art painted on tin utilitarian wares, chiefly the document boxes and platters that were brightly decorated by painters employed by tinshops in the id-19th century. We have these aplenty in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (currently on view at The Farmers' Museum), but it is another piece that caught my eye the other day that I wanted to write about. It is a piece that is ornamental not only in its painted decoration but also in the working and shaping of the tin itself. Our squirrel cage, from about 1885, is one of the most outstanding examples of its kind known. It speaks to the Victorian fascination with unusual household pets and highly ornate interior furnishings. 

Squirrels were not completely unknown as pets in the 19 century, or even the 18th. Perhaps owing to my teaching a graduate course in American painting, our squirrel cage always reminds me of the famous John Singleton Copley portrait of the half-brother Henry Pelham, better known as “Boy with a Squirrel.” This painting was done in 1765 and shows the young Henry at a table with his pet squirrel on a “leash” that is actually a gold chain. This always seemed risky to me -- squirrels bite, don’t they? -- but it must have been commonplace for the time. Other Copley portraits from this time also show squirrels on leashes.

The cage seems like a better idea, at least from the owner’s perspective. These contraptions follow the popular literature of the late 19th century extolling the virtues of pet ownership, particularly for teaching responsibility to children, and go so far as to specify the type of segmented cage,with separate areas for eating, sleeping, and exercise, that was preferred. 

Our cage fits this latter standard, but also goes much further in design. It is actually a miniature rendition of a steepled church, with a wheel attached at one end for the exercise area. The windows, which in other cages are merely small openings punched through the tin in some decorative design, are here realized as Gothic windows!

While the shape of the cage is fascinating the paint decoration really makes it special. The tinsmith must have had an experienced decorator in his employ, since the landscapes that grace the sides of the roof are done in a style closely associated with ornamented furniture. I take particular note of the Japanese style bridge in one of these landscapes, perhaps reflecting the influence of japanese design brought to America in the Centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Other painted flourishes like the swirls in the steeple contribute to the overall effect.

This piece was obviously made for a wealthy family, and so one could question the extent to which it reflects the lives of the folk. But it does showcase artisanship of the kind that furnished America with a rich and vibrant ornamental tradition with which to enhance our daily lives.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Irish Folk Art Pub Crawl

I didn’t go to Ireland looking for folk art. It was for a family reunion, although as you can probably tell from my surname, it was not my side of the family. My father-in-law planned the large gathering as a way for all of the next generation of cousins on both sides of the Atlantic to get to know one another. I had heard a lot of stories about my wife’s Irish cousins, and the unique features of the island’s landscape and culture, but had no great desire to see any of first hand.

The trip was a big surprise, and a pleasant one. We stayed in an old fashioned thatched roof Irish cottage (seen above) in the western part of the country, near Limerick, and spent several days traveling around. It was amazing, and the people were lovely. My only complaint was not being able to get a good cup of coffee in the morning. We saw castles, ruins, Druid stone circles, and the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher, where I dutifully hung my head o’er.
But it was one accidental incident that stays with me as a truly authentic Irish experience. It happened, of course, in a pub. The pub in the small village (Kilfinane, seen at the top) where we held the reunion. In the course of that raucous and happy event, which was accompanied by the requisite quantities of beer, I excused myself to make my way to the men’s room in the back of the building. Turning a corner, I came face to face with a large painting unlike anything I had seen in the country.
It was a folk painting of an Irish country scene, with two buildings (one with a thatched roof like our cottage), stone walls, and a horse and carriage. The folk style struck me immediately. It was, to me, an authentic expression of the rural culture that surrounded us in that small village. I noticed that it was titled “The Old Thatched Pub” and signed by one Patrick Casey.The date, 1976, was 23 years earlier.

Emboldened more by my fascination with folk art than the beer, I asked the bartender if he knew Casey, figuring he would be long gone by now. “Oh yes,” he said, “the dairy farmer. I can get him on the phone if you want.” Not knowing if he was joking, I said sure. Next thing I know, I’m talking to Pat Casey, who had never had anyone express interest in his paintings before. And he was on his way down to the pub to meet me.

He showed up in about ten minutes, and turned out to be a very nice man, younger than I expected, but just as grounded in the local culture as his painting suggested. He told me that he used to paint quite a bit, but the dairy farm had become too demanding and he had to put the canvas and brush aside in recent years. He was astonished that I saw any merit in his paintings. Even the bartender ribbed him: “Ah, Pat, so the Yank likes your pictures.” As he left, Pat gave me his address and said that if he ever found the time again, he would paint me a picture and send it to the States.

We kept up a modest correspondence for awhile after my return to the U.S., but, alas, Pat never got to go back to his art. Farm work waits for no one. The encounter has stayed with me, however, as a constant reminder that folk art is often rooted in working lives, and often set aside for the work to be done. When one does encounter that rare piece of local art, and has the privilege of actually meeting its creator, one can truly claim to have experienced a place and its people.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Key West as You’ve Never Seen it Before

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I write a lot about folk painting and folk sculpture, and it sometimes seems as if they are entirely separate fields. There is, however, one folk artist who pioneered the blending of the brush and the chisel in brilliant bas-relief pictures that have a 3-dimensional vibrancy unlike any other body of work.
And he owes it all to his mother-in-law.

Mario Sanchez was born in 1908 in Key West, Florida, a small island only 70 miles from his family’s home country of Cuba. Key West was settled by New Englanders and Bahamians in the early 1800s, and saw an influx of Cuban emigres during that country’s wars of independence from Spain in the 1860s and 1870s. One such newcomer was Eduardo H. Gato, a Cuban cigar maker, who built a large factory and settled his workers around it in an area that came to be known as El Barrio de Gato.

Mario Sanchez’s father worked in the factory, and the family lived in the Barrio. His father didn’t actually make cigars, though. Pedro Sanchez was an educated man, and his job was that of a “reader.” Every day, he read aloud from local newspapers in the morning, and in the afternoons he would read from a novel chosen by the workers. Each worker paid Pedro twenty-five cents for their daily edification.

Mario grew up in the easy-going island culture of Key West, and held a number of jobs that included office clerk, stenographer, translator, actor, and comedian. He even received a diploma from a local business institute and worked for a real estate company. 

And he was always making things. Mario would, as a youth, find pieces of driftwood along the beach and carve images from them. He would also make kites outs of colored tissue paper and scraps from a local box factory. In 1929, Mario married Rosa De Armas, who worked in the cigar factory and lived with her widowed mother. They were actually living and working in Tampa at the time, but soon moved back to Key West. During the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Mario supplemented his income by carving replicas of local fish and selling them for $1.50 each at a hardware store.

It is not known how many he made or sold, but it doesn’t matter: his mother-in-law loved them. It was she who suggested that Mario carve scenes of his memories of old Key West. He did so, first by drawing and carving scenes on discarded boards of tobacco crates and later on good pine, cypress or cedar boards. His very first work sold for two hundred and fifty dollars.

The Sanchez in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, featured here, is titled “Peace with Tranquility.” It is a classic Sanchez, finished in about 1960 and showing a street scene from his youth that includes a self-portrait of the artist as a boy flying a kite featuring the American stars and stripes. The relief carving is about a quarter inch deep, just enough to give dimension to the picture without detracting from the bold pattern of the flattened design. It is a warm, charming reminiscence of a community and a culture that once thrived on Key West, and now these works are a treasured part of the island’s rich heritage. Mario’s work can be seen at the East Martello Museum on an ongoing basis.
By the time of his death in 2005 at the age of 96, Mario had been justly famous for some time. When he was told by our former Director Lou Jones in 1973 that he had never seen bas-relief work of this kind before, Mario replied “That’s what Carey Grant told me.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hail Germania

Folk sculpture, at its best, intrigues, surprises, and delights with its mastery of pure form. Such is the case with the works of John Scholl (1827-1916) whose large piece titled “Mary’s Star” (68" tall) is featured in the Fenimore Art Museum’s new exhibition, “Picturing Women.”

Scholl was born in Wurtenburg, Germany and immigrated to (where else?) Germania, Pennsylvania in 1853. The were forests in the region which provided plenty of wood from which to build a community, and Scholl was a consummate worker in wood. He cleared his land and built his own house, and then proceeded to build the village church, the general store, and a local brewery. He worked with his hands for his entire life, and in his later years created elaborate decorations for local houses by making gingerbread trim with a bandsaw.
This latter activity likely led to his artistic career, which did not even begin until he turned eighty! At that age he finally decided to retire and devote himself to using his jack knife and bandsaw to express his identity, his heritage, and his deeply held beliefs. Between 1907 and his death in 1916, Scholl created dozens of human-scale sculptures comprised of an astoundingly intricate array of evocative shapes.

The pieces celebrate his Pennsylvania German heritage with their inclusion of hearts, birds of paradise, doves, flowers, and crosses.  These sculptures are remarkable in their overall visual unity. Each piece has a theme. Our “Mary’s Star” celebrates Christmas with its abstracted female form underneath a large, elaborate star. Scholl’s adopted American identity is also present here, in the distinctly Victorian shape of the base of the sculpture and the red, white, and blue color scheme. We have two other pieces by Scholl: another large sculpture with a military theme called “Song of Victory” (seen in our folk art gallery below) and a small toy-like Ferris Wheel.

These creations were not meant to serve any purpose, and were never sold or even given away. They adorned the Scholl home and were meant simply to engage and delight visitors. A period photo of Scholl’s parlor shows what a visitor to his home might have seen in the early years of the 20th century. You might notice our "Song of Victory" in the corner. A jaw-dropping sight, indeed. 

In the 1970s, Cooperstown Graduate Program student Katherine Grier wrote her thesis on Scholl, and did an exhibition and catalogue entitled “Celebrations in Wood.” His works are in important collections, including ours and that of the American Folk Art Museum in New York. And, it was nice to find out, Scholl’s descendants are still out there calling attention to his work on a great website and producing art of their own.

The quote they ascribe to the artist is a fitting summation of his life and his impetus for creating art: "When a man works steadily and faithfully for sixty years, idleness is an unwanted stranger."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus Landing; A Schoolgirl's View

Some seventy years before Columbus Day was first celebrated as a national holiday in the 1890s, an anonymous schoolgirl probably in New England rendered a tribute in watercolor to one of the most important cultural exchanges of all time. This piece, which she titled “Christopher Columbus Landing on the Island of San Salvador” in florid script along the bottom, has graced our galleries at the Fenimore Art Museum for decades. I have always taken pains to see it included in our exhibitions whenever possible. 

It is not history. In fact this piece was probably based on a print source. Art rarely, if ever, is history in the real sense. Instead, this painting speaks to the young girl’s view of herself, her heritage, and her values. In her watercolor she has created a wonderfully charming and idyllic scene of Columbus and the Natives meeting for the first time. Her Natives are resplendent in their decorative garb and feathered headdresses, one smoking a long pipe and another playfully pointing a bow and arrow out toward the Spanish ships. Columbus himself is a minor payer in this visual drama, barely visible on the shore in the middle ground being greeted by a row of Native dignitaries. The native flora is as stylized and decorative as the Native clothing; the fauna (especially the “monkey” in the tree at the right) is sure to elicit a chuckle in even the most stoic viewer.

Our anonymous schoolgirl also created a patriotic passage along the top of the piece that really sings. The eagle, flags, swords and muskets, and stars, along with the phrase “Where Liberty Dwells there is My Country” written along the margin of the main picture, all speak to the artist’s pride in the nation that arose as a result of the voyage depicted.
What makes this work so appealling? Folk art employs symbols that represent everyone, rendered in a style that is accessible to all. My experience is that most patriotic folk art unites far more than it divides. Our young painter of this piece probably never realized she was an artist, or that her work would ever be in an art museum, but she knew how to imbue a picture with her personal message of harmony, benevolence, and inclusiveness. That's something of which she could be justly proud.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Folk Art at "Fenimore House"

I found this 1950s matchbook cover on eBay recently and it reminded me of the old folk art galleries at the Fenimore Art Museum. Prior to the late 1990s, I should say, we were actually known as Fenimore House, as real misnomer for alot of reasons. Scores of visitors came to our door convinced they were about to experience James Fenimore Cooper's home, which we were not. Their disappointment was palpable, but usually molified by the great collections that we did have for them to see.

Primary among those collections, of course, was our American folk art. When I first came to Cooperstown in the early 1980s, the folk art collection was displayed in a series of small rooms on the second floor. But back in the 1950s, the collection could only be accessed by descending a staircase to your immediate left near the front door. The stairs led down one flight to three small rooms with one long, open space in the rear.

When Fenimore House was a private mansion in the late 1930s, these rooms had a variety of functions ranging from wine cellar to carpenter's shop to (yes, it's true) indoor swimming pool. These spaces were gradually renovated in the late 1940s as the folk art collection grew, culminating with the grand acquisition of the Lipman collection in 1950. The resulting galleries received national attention with a cover story in "Art In America" that included a profusely illustrated article about the collection and its new home.

The exhibit design was done by Janet MacFarlane, the curator at the time and a remarkably capable professional who also had a large role in the development of The Farmers' Museum, our sister instittution across the road. Working within constraints that are much more noticeable to our eyes today than they were then -- the low ceilings and flourescent lighting come to mind  -- I think that she created an installation that is really quite compelling. I can at least sympathize with Ms. MacFarlane, since my first folk art exhibition at Fenimore House was mounted in these same galleries. Not much had changed between 1950 and 1983.

Now, thank goodness, these spaces are gone. They were gutted during the construction of the 18,000-square-foot addition to the Fenimore Art Museum in 1995, built to house the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art along with changing exhibitions that, over the years, have included many folk art shows. But these old images, and that old matchbook, always remind me of a time when folk art was a fresh, new experience and an exciting addition to the knowledge and awareness of the American past. It's a worthy yardstick against which to measure any new installation of this great collection.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Brilliant Simplicity of A. Ellis

These two portraits of an unknown man and woman in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, signed by A. Ellis, are among my favorites folk art paintings of all time. We know so little about the artist; no biographical  data at all, in fact. About fifteen likenesses are ascribed to him (or her), and all come from the Readfield-Waterville area of central Maine. Not exactly on the way to anywhere.
The data we have, of course, is the paintings themselves. Look at these two. Ellis obviously had no artistic training in how to reproduce the observed world naturalistically. No shade or shadow, no three-dimensional modeling, no realistic surface textures. Our couple is sharply retooled into flat, decorative patterns. Lou Jones, our former director, used to say that if you wanted to create paintings to teach what folk art was supposed to look like, you would have ended up with paintings like these. It seems apparently that Ellis  may have been experienced in furniture or wall decoration, where patterns prevailed.

The decorative quality of the woman’s portrait is particularly intriguing. The curls in her hair, the scallops of her costumes, and especially her noodle arm, all exemplify the rhythm and repetition of form that we see in the best folk art. The details that Ellis added, including the flattened facial features and jewelry as well as the nosegay in the woman’s right hand, all add considerable visual interest to the pair. It’s a pity we don’t know who they were. 
Every time I see our pair I am reminded of a great A. Ellis portrait that was found by the legendary New England collector Nina Fletcher Little, whose collection now belongs to Historic New England. I have blogged about Nina in the past; she was amazing. Almost everything she acquired had a history, and her Ellis was no exception. It is a portrait of Diantha Atwood Gordon (below) done in about 1832. Like our portraits, it is done in oil on wood panel and measures about 30 x 25 inches, a standard portrait size. 

Nina Little was first and foremost a historian of New England. Nothing -- no object or painting -- was complete without a history behind it, and she took great pains to acquire that history when she collected something. When she acquired her portrait of Diantha, she did something extraordinary. She tracked down the granddaughter of the sitter (still possible in those early days of collecting!). The great-granddaughter told a story about her grandmother, Diantha’s daughter, who hated her mother so much that she locked her in an outhouse, where she was not discovered until evening.
Casually viewing the portrait of Diantha in a gallery would never bring to mind a mental picture like that. I guess we should count our blessings that Diantha’s portrait survived her daughter’s wrath. 
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