Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alcoholism and Folk Art

 A cursory glance at old and new artwork reveals a strong sense of continuity in the subject matters artists have breached over time. A particularly relentless reality of life – alcoholism – has provided fodder for folk artists for centuries. Folk artists of the past and present deal with alcoholism in ways that at first seem shockingly different, but upon closer examination reflect and even complement each other.

            Nineteenth-century folk art intersected with alcoholism through the temperance movement. The temperance movement sought to greatly diminish or entirely eradicate the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The movement first appeared in the 1830s, fell victim to abolitionist fever around mid-century, and came back with a vengeance as the nation began to rebuild itself after the Civil War.

            Folk art produced as part of the temperance movement assisted the movement in three ways: it publicized the cause, associated temperance with nationalism, and was used as a fundraising tool. Folk art portraits captured the passion with which orators maligned alcohol use, as seen in a portrait of the “Napoleon of Temperance,” Neal Dow. Spartan folk art hotel signs publicized hotels that abstained from serving alcohol, while “temperance jugs” covered in malicious serpents caused a parched man to think twice about his drink of choice. Intricate scherenschnitte made by the Pennsylvania Dutch with the words “Temperance is Wisdom” flanked by an eagle and American flag revealed their belief in temperance as a national ideal. Additionally, the famous Women’s Christian Temperance Union made quilts to raise money for their beloved cause.

            Folk artists who explore alcoholism with their work today sometimes suffer themselves from the disease and in other instances comment upon their experiences with others who do. In either case, they  confront alcoholism with grotesque, direct interpretations. Self-taught artist Matt Sesow began to paint as a result of an injury (he was hit by an airplane and lost his left hand at age eight) and although he is not an alcoholic, some of his paintings address alcoholism and its attending issues (see "Detox" above). Contemporary folk artist Parker Lanier, on the other hand, began creating art as a way to cope with the struggles and desperation of alcoholism. This highly personal venture gave an artistic, public face to this struggle when his art started garnering national attention. His lack of training served to further authenticate his depictions of the stark realities of this disease.

       Whereas temperance folk art may have warned against alcoholism from a safe distance and today’s folk art on alcoholism is a direct descendent of the disease, both serve a similar purpose. In addition to often using similar motifs, the art of both eras causes the viewer to consider the severity of the disease. This folk art fulfilled, and continues to fulfill, a need for recognition of alcoholism’s heinous nature. It causes the viewer to stop, think, and consider this unrelenting reality of life in a new way, and perhaps causes them to enact change in their own lives.  

by Olivia Cothren, American Folk Art Course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prison Art in the Late 19th Century

Prisons across the United States were reformed in the mid to late 19th century, with activists fighting for the humane treatment of inmates. As a result, many prisons developed new programs to encourage creativity; these programs included training in sewing, knitting, and art and painting. Some prisons chose to encourage inmates to contribute toward the cost of their imprisonment by enacting programs of manual labor. Prisoners worked on state-owned pig and dairy farms, in manufacturing plants, as janitors, and constructing furniture or other household items. Initially, the crafts and pieces created by inmates were sold to the general public. As the pieces had been made free via prison labor, the prisons greatly profited from the sale of goods produced within their factories. Eventually, prison-made goods were used only within the prison itself or other state organizations.

            Auburn Prison in New York is credited with beginning a woodworking program that many other prisons imitated from the middle of the 1830s onward (see the Auburn Prison art blog post here). Inmates were able to utilize water-powered sawmills and tools to create a wide variety of furniture pieces, ranging in sizes from small checkerboard game sets to large tables and chairs. The Southern Illinois Penitentiary (now known as the Menard Correctional Center) in Menard, Illinois, also had a furniture manufactory for inmates to participate in construction activities. Built on the banks of the Mississippi River, it is likely that inmates at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary also used the nearby water source to power the tools and sawmills necessary to complete their furniture tasks. Marquetry and parquetry, also known as ‘male quilting,’ were popular forms of artistic expression for inmates in prisons with woodworking shops. Parquetry is a veneering process in which small pieces of wood or other materials are arranged in geometric designs; marquetry is the same technique, but combined to create figural or natural scenes instead of shapes.

            This hall tree, measuring 80 ½” high, 35 ½” wide and 15” deep was recently sold at Garth’s Auction House in Delaware, Ohio and is now in a private collection. The hall tree was made at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary in the late 19th or early 20th century, and is constructed from walnut with wood and mother-of-pearl parquetry inlay design. The design on the piece is symmetrical, with motifs include starbursts, symbols that resemble compasses, and leafy designs – all rendered masterfully, and geometrically, by a former inmate. While no information exists on whether the piece was initially sold to the general public in southern Illinois or used in a state office setting, the piece is a striking example of beautiful folk art furniture by an often forgotten subset of our population.

by Jessica Mayercin, American folk art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mr. Folk Art

On my recent trip to New York City, I decided to stop by the American Folk Art Museum, which as you probably know had to vacate its 53rd building last year and return to its old location opposite Lincoln Center owing to financial difficulties. I must say it looks as good as ever in the space that I associated with the museum in the 1980s, and the exhibition, "Jubilation/Rumination," was a terrific exploration of the stellar permanent collection.

But the most nostalgic moment for me was happening upon an old acquaintance who, for me, represents the face of the folk art museum. His name is Ken, and he has been a guard at the museum for more than a quarter century. For most of that time, he has gone out of his way to greet me by name and chat with me when I happen to come by. And I must say, it was usually only once or twice a year. Ken knew who I was long before I knew his name.

I wish all museums had an ambassador as personable as Ken. People like him are such a valuable asset; they are a vital link between the public and the collection. And remember, he is a guard, not a docent. His enthusiasm for the subject is admirable, and, I'm sure for many, infectious. If there is a "Mr. Folk Art," I have no doubt that it is Ken the guard.
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