Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Lady in Winter

I almost missed this great carving of Lady Liberty at the MFA in Boston last month. She was tucked away in a corner of one of the large galleries, literally swallowed up by the huge painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Thomas Sully. And she's one of the best sculptures in the museum.

According to the label, this figure of Liberty was carved probably for a Massachusetts courthouse in the 1790s. This symbol of Liberty was very popular in the early years of the American Republic. She is often dressed in classical garb -- an homage to the great republics of ancient Greece and Rome -- and also holds or wears a Phrygian cap, or Liberty cap. The Liberty cap, which you can see on the end of the staff in Liberty's hand, became a symbol of freedom in the 18th century. It also comes from ancient times; the Romans gave these caps to freed slaves.

It's a great carving, probably done by someone with experience in the shipcarving trade. I was amazed at the delicate realism of the sculpture, especially considering that it was meant to be exposed to the elements -- New England winters included.

In fact, I would venture to say that this frail Lady Liberty saw worse winters than the national hero occupying acres of canvas to her right, Valley Forge notwithstanding.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Encountering God at the MFA

It is perhaps the most famous quilt in America; certainly one of the best ever produced. During a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston's new Art of the Americas wing I encountered for the first time in many years. It is Harriet Powers' great Pictorial Quilt (done between 1895 1n3 1898), recently conserved and just put on view in a special folk art gallery at the MFA.

Recognition of Powers' work came very early. In 1886, a young artist of Athens, Georgia, Jennie Smith, went to the Athens Cotton Fair. There she saw Powers' other great quilt, the Bible Quilt (now in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, below). She wrote: "I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until the year one corner there hung a quilt which 'captured my eye' and after much difficulty I found the owner, a negro woman, who lives in the country on a little farm whereon she and husband make a respectable living....The scenes on the quilt were Biblical and I was fascinated. I offered to buy it but it was not for sale at any price."

Harriet later sold the quilt to Ms. Smith, and hard times compelled the latter to only offer five dollars. Harriet and her husband, facing financial trouble themselves, readily accepted the money. But before leaving Ms. Smith's she explained all of the panels in the quilt.

In recent years another great quilter, Kyra Hicks, has done extensive research on this extraordinary artist who was born a slave in 1837 and became a landowner after the Civil War. Kyra's book, "This I Accomplish," broke new ground in the study of Powers and her work. The most startling find for many was that Harriet was actually a literate woman and a quilter of some local renown prior to her "discovery." Other surprises await in Ms. Hicks' volume, but I would rather have her tell you what they are.

For now, you can view another national treasure of textile art at the MFA. As you look at the fifteen squares, each a different story (mostly Biblical), pay particular attention to the brilliance of Powers' improvisational style. There is very little like it anywhere, except in her other quilt at the Smithsonian.

And look closely at the blue square in the center. It depicts the Leonid Meteor Shower that took place in 1833, a few years before Powers was born. The stories told by the slaves of this phenomenon must have left a deep impression on the young Harriet. By placing this image at the heart of her quilt, I think Harriet was connecting the spiritual with the physical. Her lively and profound affirmation of the presence of God on Earth is now on view in a spectacular new venue every bit the equal of the Athens Cotton Fair.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fasanella Found and Reinstalled

If you've been following my previous posts (along with my friend Laura Ruberto's) on the case of the missing Ralph Fasanella painting, "Welcome Home, Boys," owned by the City of Oakland, you'll be pleased to know that the Cultural Arts Office has overseen a reinstallation of the painting to a more public area within the African American Museum and Library of Oakland (AAMLO). The manager of the Cultural Arts Office, Steve Huss, sent me the photos you see on this page.

It looks as if the painting is now in a public reading room that houses other exhibits, which is good. And it's over a mantel, which protects it from any incidental bumping that could cause damage. So I have to admit that the City is taking this matter seriously and is doing what they can to protect and present this great work to the public.

What remains is context. I'm going to write a piece about "Welcome Home, Boys" for the City and Library staff to consider taking into account in their presentation. If there are connections that can be made to the painting's surroundings in AAMLO that would obviously strengthen the experience of seeing the work and would make it a more compelling destination than it was in the Public Library.

One other matter of interest. Mr. Huss noticed that there are two signatures. Both are dated 1953, but in one the artist's name is misspelled "Fasanlla." It was not unusual for Ralph to sign a work more than once, and it was also not unheard of for him, when signing in a hurry (his norm) to drop a letter or two. At first glance, both of these signatures look authentic. I guess we can take this as an emphatic statement of creative ownership that, by all appearances, is once again before the people of Oakland.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Dentist and the Mole

Joseph Moore was a dentist in rural Massachusetts. He couldn't have made a lot of money practicing in the small town of Ware in the late 1830s; in fact, he had to travel in order to find enough patients to keep his practice going. During the long New England winters, when travel was difficult, he had a second job as a hatter.

How is it, then, that when Moore commissioned his neighbor in Ware, Erastus Salisbury Field, to paint a portrait of himself and his family, that he chose to have them depicted on a canvas fully 84 x 93 inches? When you encounter this picture in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, it is as overwhelming as any of the huge history paintings by Copley or Stuart or Sully. And yet it depicts not a national hero, but an average country dentist.

What an incredible monument to the talents of the folk artist this painting is. It has everything: bright color, lots of detail in the faces, costumes, furniture, and carpet; incredible sense of pattern in the way that the figures float against the vertical perspective of the floor; homespun charm in the depictions of the children standing erect as forthright young adults or clinging to their parents.

And in the midst of all this artistic virtuosity, one small telling detail that really says it all. Look closely at Joseph Moore's face. No, that is not a flaw in the photograph. It is a large mole on his left cheek. Why would you allow that to be included in your portrait if you were paying enough to have a mural size image created?

Because it was there. A distinguishing feature that was not seen as a blemish, at least not by Joseph Moore. In folk art studies we acknowledge the tendency of the artist to present subjects as they are, with all there "flaws," as an honest, direct approach to art-making. It's what makes folk art such an important historical document, and a counterpoint to the tendency among academic artists to gloss over the odd features of a subject to approach a more conventional notion of physical beauty.

In the typically witty shorthand of the folk art field, this approach has a nickname: it is known as the "warts-and-all" approach. It's just one more way that the untrained artist, in doing everything wrong, somehow got it all right.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Back in the Public Domain

I had a nice phone conversation yesterday with Mr. Steven Huss, Cultural Arts Manager for the City of Oakland. He called to reassure me that the Fasanella painting "Welcome home, Boys" was in good hands at the African american Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO, above), and that the city would redouble their efforts to care for the work as well as ensure public access to it.

Mr. Huss made a couple of points that bear repeating here. First, that the painting was never "lost," but that it had been moved without the Cultural Arts office knowing where it went. He went on to explain that this painting is an anomaly in the City's art collection in that it is the only moveable object they have. (This page will give you some idea of what he means). I can certainly sympathize in that city offices generally do not have the staff, infrastructure, or procedures in place to track objects the way museums do. And museums do lose things from time to time too.

At any rate, the painting is now on everyone's radar screen for the foreseeable future. Mr. Huss promised to move it from the office area it now occupies to a public gallery at AAMLO. He even promised to send me a photograph of the work in its new location for me to post here on the blog. In return, I have donated a copy of my 2001 book "Ralph Fasanella's America" to AAMLO for them to have as a resource for people who come see the painting.

The only question that remains for me is whether "Welcome Home, Boys" fits into the mission and activities of AAMLO, whose stated purpose is to "discover, preserve, interpret and share the historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for future generations." AAMLO has a lot of archival material relating to progressive movements and people; perhaps that is a tie-in; "Welcome Home, Boys" includes a diverse group of labor activists and strongly reflects the artist's experience in the more progressive unions to advocate for racial and gender equality. AAMLO also appears to have high-quality exhibition spaces and design. So I'm looking forward to seeing where the Fasanella fits in.

For now, however, I feel satisfied that the painting is safe, the city values it again, and the public will shortly be able to see it. That is, after all, what the public domain is all about.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hiding in "Plain Sight"

That's how the City of Oakland described the resolution to the case of the missing Fasanella painting outlined in my last post. It was never lost, they said (after dispatching no less than a dozen employees to find out where it was). The painting had, since 2003, been on display at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, in a climate-controlled environment to protect the newly restored work from any further deterioration. The story of the city's reaction to the breaking news of the missing painting appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Bay Citizen (the latter being the Bay area's New York Times bureau). My phone interviews with the various reporters took place in a crowded NYS Thruway rest area while on my way to New York last week, so pardon me if I don't sound coherent :-)

The question of why the Fasanella is in an African American museum is beyond me at the moment, but suffice it to say that when Laura Ruberto went to the museum to see it, it was there just as the city said. Well, almost. The photo Laura took clearly shows the painting is in good shape and even has its informational plaque on the wall next to it for visitors to read. But wait. In the lower right corner there is a stereo player of some sort, and in the lower left a chair. That's because the Fasanella is hanging in a private office rather than a public space.

At least the city did the right thing in protecting the painting and placing it in a safe, climate-controlled area, but that's not the same as having it accessible to the people of the city, which was the spirit of the gift in the early 1990s. Obviously, more discussions with the city will follow, which I will share on these pages.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Missing Masterpiece

It's not often that there is breaking news in the field of American folk art, but this is huge: a large and important folk painting by Ralph Fasanella given to the people of Oakland twenty years ago cannot be found anywhere.

A week or two ago I casually asked Laura Ruberto, a Facebook friend and colleague who lives in Oakland, if she had ever seen the Fasanella painting "Welcome Home, Boys" at the Oakland Public Library. The work, painted in 1953 and measuring a full six feet in width, had been purchased from a private collection with money from a local union and the public art fund of the city of Oakland in the early 1990s through an initiative called Public Domain. It was originally going to hang in the Oakland Airport, but the Public Library seemed a safer and better location. It was intended to honor the working class citizens of Oakland and the Bay area who fought for a piece of post-World War II prosperity after working for years under a no-strike pledge to help the war effort.

And there (on the blank wall above) it was when I went though Oakland in 1997 and stopped by just to see it. But when Laura went to the library, well, that's when things got fuzzy. The Library recalled sending the work to the Oakland Museum for restoration in 1997. The Museum staff told Laura that it left their premises in 2003, but could not tell her where it went. The Public Arts office did not know its whereabouts, but promised to investigate. Her story of her continued attempts to locate this work through the Library, the Oakland Museum, and the Public Arts office are detailed in her recent blog post, "The Case of the Missing Fasanella Painting." The whole episode is very disturbing.

Hopefully the work is simply tucked away somewhere in storage or hanging in a union hall somewhere in the city. Hopefully. I'll post an update when we know anything further.
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