Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sulton Rogers

Sometimes you have to drive 1500 miles to find something worthwhile in your own backyard. Back in the early 1990s I took a road trip south to Georgia and Alabama in search of contemporary folk art. I had a knowledgeable friend in Atlanta to helped me navigate the backroads of the rural South, where I had never ventured before. It was fascinating, as you might imagine, but one of the great finds took place toward the end of the trip as I was about to head home.

My friend and I were talking about folk artists worth pursuing, and he pointed to an image in a recent book and said, "you ought to try and find this guy." It was an artist originally from Mississippi who settled in Syracuse, New York, about an hour from my home in Utica. His name was memorable: Sulton Rogers; and his works were unforgettable, grotesque figures with twisted grins and crooked noses.

I managed to find Sultan by asking around, and visited him at his home. He was in the southern part of the city. A friend described how to get there but declined to accompany me, saying it was "not my neighborhood." With the prospect of finding a great folk artist, I went anyway.

It was a decision I won't ever regret. Sulton was very friendly, and there was little about the area that seemed threatening besides the general run-down look of some of the houses. I remember entering Sulton's home and being surprised at how dark he kept the entryway and the living room. The first time I went in he introduced me to some people who, I realized suddenly, were sitting right in front of me. We went into his basement, where he did most of his carving.

Sulton dscribed how he got started. He came fron an artistic family in Mississippi; his father was a carpenter and whittler and, if I'm remembering correctly, his mother was a great quilter. Sulton was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1922 and settled in Syracuse in 1952. From about 1970 he worked for Allied Chemical, where his job of monitoring equipment left him with time on his hands. That's when he started to carve in earnest.

Sulton's favorite subject was people, especially if they had expressive facial features that he could caricature. He did these constantly, and the results are hysterical, as you can see from these examples. Sulton's work station at Allied was full of these carvings, and they were popular with coworkers.

Too popular, in fact. After people kept stealing them, Sulton had an idea. He started carving his figures in coffins. Nobody touched those. In fact, he even had the bright idea to leave the legs off the figure so that he could put valuables or money in the empty space in the coffin.

We have several of Sulton's figures, including one in a coffin, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. And you know, as I write this, it occurs to me that I have never checked the empty space to see if Sulton left anything inside. I'm not sure I ever will.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Electra Havemeyer Webb on Paul's Shelburne-Fenimore Scorecard

Two years ago today I blogged about a visit to the Shelburne Museum, which has one of the great folk art collections in America, assembled by Electra Havemeyer Webb. You can read my take on the collection in my post from August 24, 2009. At the time I compiled a personal scorecard comparing our collection with theirs from my point of view. Here are the results as I saw it:

Folk Art Scorecard: Fenimore vs. Shelburne

Portraits: Fenimore
Landscapes/townscapes: Fenimore
Schoolgirl art: Shelburne
Quilts: Shelburne
Sculpture: Shelburne
Ceramics (stoneware): Fenimore
Ceramics (redware): Shelburne
20th century: Fenimore

The gist of it is: we are better in paintings; they are better in sculpture.

Well, now I have a "response" from Mrs. Webb herself. Posthumously, of course, since she passed away in late 1960 (just a couple of months after our benefactor, Stephen C. Clark, died). In a letter written to Edith Gregor Halpert, who ran the Downtown Gallery in New York and sold American folk art since the 1920s, Electra reveals her reaction to our collection from a visit to Cooperstown. The letter, which came to my attention from my colleague at Shelburne, Jackie Oak, is dated October 8, 1954 and reads as follows: 

"….I have just returned from Cooperstown and, except for maybe one or two pieces of sculpture, I am very satisfied with our collection…but I do think they excel in the paintings in variety and class…."

Great minds think alike. Thank you, Mrs. Webb.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

(Folk) Art in Bloom

Today is the Fenimore Art Museum's Art in Bloom event, and the galleries look so good I had to share a few samples from the folk art gallery. Art in Bloom is all about using floral arrangements to interpret art. We are very lucky to have the local Lake and Valley Garden Club to undertake this effort for us. They got together 20 different arrangements that are all on view today and tomorrow. The one above is an interpretation of our great Grandma Moses painting, "Sugaring Off." You can see a variety of ways that the floral artists use color and composition to make their own versions of the paintings.

This is a bouquet in honor of our Washington and Liberty window shade, the subject of one of my previous posts.

This one interprets a terrific crazy quilt in the gallery.

And this one is a lively rendition of our folk portrait, "Picking Flowers," by Samuel Miller.

Enjoy the flowers on this beautiful weekend!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hidden Patterns

I swear that none of these weird coincidences happened until I started blogging. A few months ago I took a call from a gentleman who was a descendant of J. W. Fiske, the famous 19th-century weathervane maker from New York. He had some old weathervane patterns from the shop and wanted to know if we wanted them. We did, of course, but he was moving and needed to get rid of them quickly. So there was no way we could take them in time. It was a big disappointment.

This past week I was on vacation on Martha's Vineyard and remembered a recommendation from a former folk art student of mine to stop in to the weathervane shop of Tuck and Holland in Vineyard Haven. I had tried to stop in last year but the shop was closed. Hoping for better luck, I went to the shop to see a weathervane craftsman at work.

I was greeted by Anthony Holland, who I learned was one of the few craftspeople making weathervanes in a traditional manner in the United States. He showed me around thes shop, and his work was fantastic. I began taking pictures of the crowded workspace and a pile of metal underneath a shelf caught my eye. I asked what it was. "Oh," Anthony said, "those are really great. They're some old J. W. Fiske patterns I got from the original maker's grandson." I had found the patterns, or they had found me.

He showed me the patterns. There was an eagle, a cow, and Fiske's famous horse, Ethan Allen. Anthony told me of his plans to recreate some vanes using the Fiske patterns. He's good enough to do them justice. It actually nice to know that these artifacts had found a good home, and that they were in the hands of a craftsman who had the skills to bring them back to life. I'm looking forward to seeing the results.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ralph's Take on Rembrandt

Ralph Fasanella had trouble painting hands. A lot of trained artists do too, so it is not surprising that a union organizer who turned to drawing suddenly at the age of 40 would struggle with hands early in his career. But he did have something that proved better than years of formal training: he believed that he was an artist and that what he was doing - painting the lives of working people - was a calling that deserved his complete attention and all-consuming passion.

And that made him react when anyone suggested that his paintings weren't up to snuff. He said that he was painting "felt space," not real space. His people and the urban settings he placed them in were not realistic in the purest sense of the word, but they sang with spirit and emotion. As Ralph said, "I may paint flat, but I don't think flat."

His most memorable quote, and the one that says the most about him, occurred very early in his artistic career, when someone told him that his hands looked like sticks. He ought to study Rembrandt's hands, they said, in order to get it right.

His response is priceless: "Fuck you and Rembrandt! My name is Ralph!"

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Family Visit

It was my great pleasure this week to see the family of Joseph Schoell (visiting from Georgia) and (with my colleague Erin Richardson) show them the sculptures we have in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. I wrote about my experiences with Joseph in my previous post, "An American Dream in Sheet Metal and Paint." The family group included Agnes Schoell Freas, the artist's daughter (in light blue, above; she is named for her mother, the artist's wife), her son David and daughter-in-law Theresa, and their children Alex and Adam.

I don't write enough about folk artists' families. They are really the unsung heroes of this body of work, and their devotion to the visions and labor of the artists among them is what carries on much of the legacies we enjoy. They are as important as any museum staff. As a case in point, I discovered that the Schoell family home is still preserved, with many of Joseph's original sculptures still in place on the front lawn.

As we looked at Joseph's Statue of Liberty, it was particularly heartwarming to hear Agnes explain to her grandchildren the hardships of Joseph's life in Europe and his gratitude for everything this country had to offer. The sculpture was, to them, much more than a visual delight; it was part of who they are. You can see from the photo that we asked Alex and Adam to hold the plaque Joseph made commemorating the anniversaries of the Statue of Liberty and of his coming to America. It seemed like an appropriate way to honor the hopes and dreams the artist undoubtedly carried with him across the ocean. I like to think that Joseph would have been pleased and proud.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Keeping the Faith

I've seen cathedrals and temples large and small over the years, but the Faith Mission is the one of the most memorable churches I've ever been in. It wasn't hard to find; in a non-descript neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia, the small domestic structure that held the church stood out by virtue of the large painted images of Jesus and assorted angels surrounded by quotes from scripture all over the exterior facing the street.

Not even the jubilant facade, howver, could prepare you for what was inside.

Anderson Johnson was born in Virigina in 1915, the son of a sharecropper. One day, when he was eight years old, he was hoeing a field when he had a vision of God holding out a large, leather-bound book to him. He took that as a sign that he had been called to preach. And preach he did for much of his adult life, using his spiritual fervor and musical talent (specifically his steel guitar) to bring people to Jesus.

Johnson moved back to Newport News in the 1970s to live with his mother, and after her death in 1984 he finally had the chance to create his own church. And so, in that same house, the Faith Mission was born. It was at this time that Johnson put another of his talents into service to Jesus by creating visionary works of art.

It wasn't hard to decipher Johnson's vision. When I visited him in the early 1990s I was initially astonished by the painted facade of the Mission. When I went inside, however, I was completely bowled over. The whole first floor of the house had been gutted to make one large space, with makeshift pews on the front side and an altar and lectern on the back. But that wasn't all. Not by a longshot.

The makeshift church was full of people; bright-eyed, well-dressed, and eager for the Bishop Anderson Johnson's sermon. But they weren't actual people. They were painted portraits by Johnson, smiling, attentive visages on cardboard or plywood, lining each and every pew and even hanging from the rafters. An audience of every speaker's dreams. And a congregation worthy of Johnson's abilities.

Reverend Johnson himself was a delight to meet and converse with. He was not a fundamentalist nutcase. He was friendly and soft-spoken and humbled by his calling. I asked how many parishioners he had. "I've got five that I can count on." That didn't keep him from his committment to preach. We ended up buying several pieces for the Fenimore Art Museum, including a lectern (above) and a painting of an angel (below).

The only time that I saw him upset was on another visit a year or two later. Reverend Johnson had been having some problems with his neighbors. Since he had become well-known as a folk artist, scores of people - strangers to the neighborhood - were coming to see the Faith Mission and buy art. The neighbors accused him of drug dealing. As he explained the situation to me, he got angry, ripped open a decorative container he had made to show me there was nothing inside, and yelled "I don't know nothing about no dope dealer!" It was extremely upsetting to see this good man have to defend himself.

But the memory reminds me, as I think of Reverend Johnson's beautiful people, how wide is the gulf between the world as it is and as it ought to be. Anderson Johnson did what he could to narrow that divide, in a small corner of the world that desparately needed his presence.

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