Friday, July 29, 2011

Loaded for Bear

It's very hard to paint ferocity, especially on a small scale. But this doesn't keep self-taught artists from trying and, as usual, we are the beneficiaries of their efforts. Here is another example.

This small watercolor, about 8 x 10 inches, was found in Binghamton, New York, a small city along the Pennsylvania border. It is called, for obvious reasons, "The Bear Hunters." Actually, I'm not overly fond of that title; this doesn't look like a bear hunt to me. Rather it appears that the two gentlemen and their dog have encountered a bear unexpectedly. The man in orange seems to be raising his axe in self defense. I'm not a hunter, but I'm pretty sure you don't consciously hunt bears with an axe. The other man, in blue, also seems to be in a defensive posture, holding his rifle sideways as if to deflect a blow.

The charm in this piece lies in the bared teeth of the dog and the bear, and in particular the problems in scale that the artist had with the latter. This particular diminutive bear does not seem to pose much of a threat to two armed men and a dog.

Unless there's a mama nearby. Enjoy the watercolor and have a great weekend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Mysterious Miniature Altar

Quite a number of years ago I was walking through the exhibition "Expressions of Trust" at the America Folk Art Museum in New York when an unusual piece caught my eye. It was a sculpture in the form of a carved box with a wood frame and plexiglas sides that allowed you to see inside. In the center of the box was a carved altar with a crucifix surrounded by colorful plastic flowers. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it intrigued me in that it seemed like the kind of folk art you might find at a local flea market or consignment shop. It was strong in its simplicity and in the depth of the devotion expressed by the obviously Catholic, working class artist.

When I read the label I was stunned. It was made by a priest from Uitca, where I live. And judging from the artist's dates, he was still alive. I took down all of the information on the label and resolved to look into it further upon returning home. With any luck, there would be an opportunity to meet an interesting local folk artist and perhaps see more pieces.

When I got back home I took out the phone book and looked up the name of the priest. He was right there in the white pages. Delighted at my luck, I picked up the phone and dialed. A male voice answered. I said, "Is this Father so-and-so?" "Yes, it is." Introducing myself, I continued, "I saw your piece at the American Folk Art Museum and really liked it." "What piece?" "The sculpture of the miniature altar." "I don't know what you're talking about." We dropped the conversation quickly and got off the phone.

Well, that was awkward. Unsure of what went wrong (some folk artists just don't want any attention, which is understandable) I just dropped the matter and forgot about the sculpture. Some years later, during a busy summer day at the Fenimore Art Museum, the front desk called to tell me that there was a young couple that wanted to see a curator. I went down to meet them, of course. They were from Barneveld, a small town about a half hour north of Utica. They told me that they had a piece of folk art by a relative of the woman. When they showed me a photo my eyes went wide. It was a miniature altar nearly identical to the one I had seen years earlier.

"Wow, is this one of those altars made by that priest from Utica?" The couple looked at each other, confused. "No, this is by a carpenter, Leo Liedtke," the woman said, "my father." So it was father, Leo. Not Father Leo. Delighted to find out the truth, I gladly accepted the piece into the collection and started to do some research on Liedtke, who had passed away years ago.

There wasn't a lot to find. Leo had lived an ordinary life in a house about a mile from where I live now. He was a steady, reliable carpenter and father as well as, I'm sure, a steady and reliable parishioner. And yet, in that ordinary house he quietly turned his manual skills toward the creation of these small altars. To my knowledge they were never meant to be exhibited outside his home. He did do one large piece, of the Forbidden City in China, but it was the smaller religious works that held all the charm and personal meaning.

Leo Liedtke may never be considered a great or important folk artist, but his work - and the memorable way it came to me - stands for something larger. In expressing beliefs and values shared by many in his community, Liedtke affirmed his individual existence. His folk art was an profound expression of self in a world where sameness was the watchword.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Little Farmer

Here is a small watercolor, about 4" x 7", that I have always liked. It was purchased from a landlady in New Bedford, Massachusetts by Jean Lipman in the 1940s, with little or no history as to who painted it and where it was from. It has been in the Fenimore Art Museum collection since 1950.

It depicts a small farmstead with a nice house (possibly stone with tile shingles), a well, and a farmer holding a two-pronged pitchfork and walking a dog on a leash. That's about all we know, believe it or not. The painting has always been called "The Amish Farmer" owing to the distinctive beard and hat of the man, but that is a tenuous identification at best.

All that aside, the little watercolor has out-sized charm, doesn't it? We displayed it in our folk art gallery last year and it received considerable attention. I was hoping that someone would provide some clue to its origin, but, alas, it remains one of our anonymous treasures.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Stolen Kiss on the Mohawk River

Every time I travel north on Interstate 87 from Albany, New York, to the Adirondacks, I pass over the well-known "Twin Bridges," technically the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge which spans the Mohawk River just a few miles north of the city. The bridge offers a nice view of an idyllic riverside with cottages nestled along the shore and people swimming and boating. It never occurred to me until recently that just underneath the bridge is the site of a old ferry that figures prominently in one of my favorite paintings here in the Fenimore Art Museum.

Dunsbach's Ferry Across the Mohawk is a painting done in the 1890s by an O. B. Scouten that depicts the ferry operation in astonishing detail. The artist shows the landmark buildings on the near shore, including a house on the left built by Killian Van De Burg in 1718, and a tavern on the right operated at the time by John Sheffer, known as "Dutch John." The train in the background hints at the importance of the Ferry, as it connected travelers to and from Albany to the Troy and Schenectady line of the New York Central Railroad.

But it is the figures and their activities in this painting that has always intrigued me. In the foreground you see farmers with a hay wagon alongside city folk waiting for the ferry, and at the right there is a woman feeding chickens and boys swimming in the river. On the ferry itself (detail below) the artist has depicted two ferry workers, one manning the rope and the other pulling the ferry along the guidelines. There is also a two-horse wagon with a well-dressed couple.

Take a good look at the couple. The man's attention is not focused on his companion, but rather on the seated couple on the edge of the ferry behind the wagon, who appear to be in full embrace and in mid-kiss. Here is the value of a folk artist: no detail goes unnoticed or is thought to be too trivial. As much as I like historic photography (see the image of Dunsbach's Ferry in the collection of the Capital District Library Council above), there is no substitute the artist-voyeur.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Lightning Strikes in Cooperstown

We've had some turbulent weather lately here in upstate New York, and every once in a while, when it thunders and lightnings, I think of Jimmy Litz.

James C. Litz was born in Buffalo, New York in 1948. He graduated from high school in the late 1960s, but never had a chance to enter a trade or begin a career. At the age of eighteen he was drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam. Jimmy served with Company D of the 7th Air Cavalry, the same unit, he noted, that General George Armstrong Custer lost at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Jimmy left Oakland on his nineteenth birthday and arrived in Vietnam at 1 am the next day. He spent his tour of duty with a machine gun unit in the jungles along the South China Sea coast. Here's a photo Jimmy later sent me of himself (on the right) with a buddy, Leo Parker of Dallas, Texas.

Returning to civilian life was extremely difficult. Jimmy recalled that it was impossible for him to take orders from anyone in authority, and so he moved from job to job and turned to alcohol to escape what he saw as a ruined life. His family helped whenever they could, asking Jimmy to do odd jobs that even included entertaining his nephews. At one such babysitting gig, in the early 1980s, he decided to draw some pictures in pencil and have the boys color them. Jimmy enjoyed drawing so much that he bought paints and began to create lively, colorful versions of his sketches.

Jimmy became well known as a folk artist in Buffalo thanks to a local gallery owner and artist, Tony Sisti, and even got some words of encouragement from Will Moses, the grandson of Grandma Moses. But it was a fateful day in 1986 that will forever remain in my mind when I think of Jimmy.

It was mid-afternoon on August 2, and Jimmy and his wife Beverly were enjoying a trip to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. All of a sudden a violent storm kicked up, with torrential rain, high winds, and frightful lightning. Several blocks away from their car, Jimmy and Beverly ran for their lives to the nearest house and frantically knocked on the door to be let in.

The house they entered happened to be the home of Louis C. and Agnes Halsey Jones, pioneering scholars in the field of American folk art. Lou, of course, was the retired Director of our museum, and had formed our great folk art collection in the 1940s and 1950s. Jimmy thoroughly charmed the Joneses, and neither party could believe their luck. Before long, Jimmy was at the Fenimore Art Museum with a portfolio of paintings and we had his work in the permanent collection. I show two of his works here: The Buffalo Bisons War Memorial Stadium from 1987 and Birds, Butterflies, and Survival from 1990. I got to know Jimmy well over the ensuing years, and even visited him in Buffalo. His health began to fail in 2000, when he had to stop painting, and he died of complications from diabetes in 2009.

Jimmy was one of the nicest, most upbeat people I've ever met. He reveled in his life as an artist, saying that painting was "the only real time I am able to communicate what's going on inside my head." Judging from his beautiful paintings, he had negotiated a peace with the world that served everyone well. And judging from the lightning storm, he may well have had someone else looking out for him.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Horse with the Longest Hair in the World

Here is a beautiful and intriguing painting (roughly 18" x 24") we purchased from a woman in North Chatham, New York in 1958, depicting a horse. Not just any horse. But the horse with the longest hair in the world. Supposedly.

I'm pretty sure that title was bestowed on the animal by our then-Director Lou Jones, who was a folklorist by trade and loved tall tales. Looking at this painting, it's easy to see it as a product of an artist's imagination or some flight of fancy on the part of the person who commissioned the painting. Over the years, scores of visitors to the Fenimore Art Museum have thought otherwise, and have filled our research files with candidates for the identity of this horse.

The most compelling case is that of Linus, a Percheron stallion who was featured in Scientific American in 1891. In fact, the engraving of Linus that appeared in the journal (above) was possibly the source for the painting's composition, as opposed to the artist painting the picture from life by viewing the real horse.

Here is what Scientific American had to say about Linus: He is 16 hands in height, weighs 1,435 pounds and is of chestnut color. The mane is fourteen feet, the foretop nine feet, and tail twelve feet long. When spread and drawn out to their full extent, the display of the beautiful locks of bright hair is quite impressive. The greatest care is taken of the hair.  It is washed out with cold water, no tonics being applied to it. Before the horse is placed in his stall the hair is drawn out and divided into several thick strands. From his mane four such strands are made.  Each strand is then tied around once every six inches about to the end. It is then rolled up and put into a bag.  For his mane and foretop alone five bags are required....During the last two years his mane and tail have grown about two feet.

Some years ago someone sent this photograph of Linus, an even better image of him to compare with the painting.

Is this enough to re-title the painting? Perhaps. We haven't done that yet; the title "Horse with the Longest Hair in the World" is hard to let go of.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gregorio Marzan and the Lady of 104th Street

I have had many pleasant encounters with folk artists over the years, most of them on dusty back roads many miles from the nearest population center. As you know from previous posts on Malcah Zeldis and Ralph Fasanella, some of my favorites were right in Manhattan. Gregorio Marzan is another urban folk artist that I recall with great fondness.

He may as well have lived in the middle of nowhere, at least as far as my experience of New York is concerned. Gregorio was an immigrant from Puerto Rico and lived in a housing project on 104th Street in Manhattan in the neighborhood of East Harlem.

I knew from reading books on contemporary folk art that he was born in Vega Baja, west of San Juan in North Central Puerto Rico in 1906. He came to New York in 1937, a refugee of hard times during the Depression and years ahead of the great Puerto Rican migration that followed World War II. The only work he could find was through the Works Progress Administration, first as a sewer worker and later, thankfully, as a maker of toys and dolls in a factory. He remained in this line of work until his retirement in 1971.

Like many folk artists, he did not become idle upon retiring. Gregorio instead used his talents and his penchant for finding objects to work with to create fantastic sculptures. He made portrait busts, colorful animals, and one of the best renditions of the Statue of Liberty ever made (the ones shown just below are from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a private collection). He began to show his work at El Museo del Barrio nearby and became well known, at least in folk art circles.

It was Lady Liberty I was after when I visited Gregorio with my friend Lee Kogan (seen with me and Gregorio in the photo above) in the winter of 1991/92. His neighborhood was quiet if not posh, but his building was quite run down. Wallpaper peeling in the halls. Garbage here and there that we had to step around. Smells I can't describe. And yet Gregorio's apartment was immaculate and he appeared to maintain a steadfast dignity in his old age despite the decline of the world around him. We talked for a while, with his daughter helping to translate. Gregorio didn't flinch when he told me that a Statue of Liberty would cost $800.

Neither did I. We agreed on the price and I left there not entirely sure he had the energy left in him to do another large piece. A few weeks later I received a call from his daughter. The piece was ready. I went back down to New York and back to 104th Street, where I went back into that building and up the elevator to his apartment door. I knocked, and there was no answer. I heard muffled noises coming from inside, but couldn't tell what was going on.

Gregorio finally came to the door and let me in. To my utter astonishment, he had created an elaborate setting in one whole room to showcase his new Statue of Liberty for me. On a pedestal. With special lighting from a single bare lightbulb. The wall behind it cleared to eliminate any distractions. And the Lady - made from plaster, fabric, glue, and even the Elmer's Glue caps - was gorgeous.

I'll never forget the pride on his face; the pride of creation, of course, but also the pride in being American. I told him it was perfect, paid him his money, and gently carried the piece out to my car.

When I first heard about Gregorio's Statues of Liberty I was surprised to find out that he had never actually visited the Lady in person. After that afternoon I realized that it didn't matter, for it was obvious that he carried her with him every day.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, July 1, 2011

Folk Sculpture: The View from Below

Friday is a great day for less serious blogging, so I decided to just have a little fun with my iPhone camera in the gallery. The results actually surprised me.

It's amazing how much difference perspective can make. When viewed from below, these folk sculptures in the Fenimore Art Museum's galleries take on characteristics that are far grander than we typically show. Our little George Washington figure, above, looks like it belongs in a park with scores of pigeons all over it and people lounging at its base.

The cigar store figure seen here may well have been viewed this way in the 1890s. We found an advertisement from the tobacconist who owned it showing the figure displayed on a second story balcony overlooking the street.

I always thought our little mermaid garden sculpture looked like a full sized figurehead on the prow of a ship. If she was several times larger than she is, this is what she would look like from the wharf below.

And lastly, we used to think that this figure of Columbia was first thought to have been a pilot house figure for a Great Lakes steamship. One scholar, however, thought that it might have been made for a courthouse, although others have felt that to be unlikely as the more common courthouse figure was Justice, of course. At any rate, here is what she would have looked like to a passenger, perhaps, standing on the deck of the steamship.

I will only add that an exercise such as this should only be undertaken when the gallery is empty. Even when you are the President. Especially when you are the President.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin