The first exhibition to comprehensively profile the art created by Masonic and Odd Fellow fraternities during the late eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries aims to deconstruct the arcane significance of the esoteric aspects of their practice. Titled “Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellow Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection,” on view at the American Folk Art Museum from January 21st to May 8th 2016, the show provides a glimpse into the otherness that separated these groups from larger society. Comprised of nearly two hundred works, it shows the once-veiled nature of those fraternities during the British colonization and the founding of America.
Private Fraternities like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows were formed before social services were governmentally institutionalized, and drew their often-shared ideologies from European ‘enlightenment’ philosophy and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Defined as organizations to teach men a system of ethics to develop and practice good moral character, such fraternities have been mythologized by popular culture since they emerged in the early 1700s. Much controversy shrouded these secret societies, which established ‘lodges’ around the country where they performed spiritual and physical initiations and conducted various other rituals. George Washington and James Monroe, among other American presidents, were known Masons.
Despite the many convoluted conspiracies linked to such groups, the art that was created by these individuals has been largely missing from the narrative of contemporary folk exhibitions. The objects that comprise the show belong to the New York art dealers Kendra and Allan Daniel, who expressed in a press statement that, “Fraternal art is an under-appreciated area in American folk art. There have been single pieces in exhibitions, but never a collection demonstrating the breadth and scope of the art of fraternities, [which are] beautiful, often eerie, and sometimes outré.”
Stacy C. Hollander, the chief curator at the American Folk Art Museum, organized the exhibition with guest curator Aimee E. Newell, Ph.D., who is the director of collections at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. “It’s not your typical folk art show [because] this is not art material that generally gets out into the world,” Hollander explained. “Most of this art only circulates within fraternal circles, [which typically] have their own museums and libraries. This exhibition provides the unique opportunity to show the different art expressions of these groups, and it’s also interesting to shed some light on the ideals and principles of fraternal practices [that are often] called ‘spooky’ in popular culture.”
The works that these mostly-anonymous artists created on textiles, wood, steel, canvas and other mediums were used as props and decoration for their established lodges, and were intended to express certain values to their brethren and initiates. The show features architectural elements such as columns, archways, and painted backdrops; lodge furnishings, such as altars and symbolic props; and, personal items, like aprons, certificates, and medals. Although there are some aesthetic distinctions to both groups, the Freemasons and Odd Fellows created many overlapping symbols and motifs. Common motifs include squares and compasses, beehives, the all-seeing eye, hands, hearts, staffs, harps, double-headed eagles, aprons, suns and stars, arrows, and skulls and crossbones. Although their regalia and ritual stories may differ, the groups use the same symbolic language to teach similar virtues.
Tracing boards were popular among both organizations, and had to do with degree structure, lodge hierarchy and regalia. Initially, Masonic tracing boards were drawn on the ground and erased at the conclusion of a ritual, but were later painted on canvas and either hung on the wall of the lodge or stored. An example from the exhibition includes a painting by an unidentified artist where a central image of an open tent (representing hospitality) is surrounded by a magic circle comprised of six smaller symbols, each with its distinct symbolism.
Women were mostly excluded from direct membership in fraternal organizations until the founding of female fraternities in the late nineteenth century. A multi-colored quilt of Masonic symbols that has been incredibly well-preserved, suggesting that it was once a treasured family heirloom, provides evidence that Masons relied on auxiliary groups of women to help operate and decorate the lodge.
By the late eighteenth century, African American men had already established their own Masonic groups in America, largely due to being rejected from membership in already-established lodges. Although accepted by British regiments, free African American men, such as Prince Hall, were rejected by exclusively white lodges in America and petitioned for and formed their own Masonic lodges by the late 1700s. This lithograph serves to demonstrate the African American counterparts of these organizations.
Another example of a brut art work in the show is an ivory locket miniature that was possibly made by a French prisoner, which depicts a Masonic temple made from paper and the portrait of a woman on the reverse. These pendants were sometimes made by prisoners with whatever materials could be sourced, and were used to remember fraternal lessons or for identification within lodges.
The collection of such pieces, along with staffs, clothes, wooden models and other works, fulfills the missing account of Masonic and Odd Fellow works of art in contemporary art exhibitions. While serving to preserve the myth of these enigmatic secret societies, the show provides a seldom-seen account of their esoteric practices that continues to bewilder and intrigue modern culture.
Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellow Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, January 21st to May 8th 2016, American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, NY 1002