On a visit to The American Folk Art Museum and the exhibit, A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, I had the unique opportunity to meet Stacy Hollander, the Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions. A self-proclaimed “lifer” at the museum, she has had a foot in its involvement and evolution over the past twenty-five years and counting. Hollander’s enthusiasm is impossible to miss as we stroll through the museum corridors. The space feels vast, uncluttered, with various works set to a clean backdrop. Portraits hung in gold frames lined an otherwise disparate wing of the museum, and I can’t help but feel better connected to the walls and its history.
Established in 1961, The American Folk Art Museum houses over seven thousand artworks dating from the eighteenth century to the present. A cultural mainstay, the institution is dedicated to interpreting the creative expression of self-taught artists encouraging and celebrating artists that lack any formal training.
The museum hosts a number of educational programs and weekly performances of live folk music to public audiences. A particularly unique aspect of the museum and its legacy is the shared intimacy borne out of the space and its collections. Folk art, particularly manifest in its paintings and portraits were often completed in “a face-to-face manner, between somebody commissioning a work and somebody completing that commission,” Hollander notes. “We’ve had more than a century at this point to try to uncover the artists and the makers of this field. And we’ve made enormous strides, but there’s still a lot of room for discovery. And that’s really fun, because you really can make contributions. You can take a body of work and really try to uncover and recover who created this work, as well as the other contextual, artistic, and cultural connotations that we want to bring to the artwork.”
American folk art as we know it emerged as a genre at the turn of the twentieth century. Born out of a need to come together, professional artists, curators, collectors, critics, and dealers met in search of an authentic American art. Stories often expressed in artwork sought to depict the everyday human experience. With values rooted in community-building, harnessing original thought and creative expression, and progress, American folk art was discovered, so to speak. Additionally, the museum neither discriminates against artists of the past and present, providing a safe space for self-taught artists to take part, as well as the next generation of artists in learning to embrace and appreciate their predecessors. It comes as no surprise that the museum expresses itself as giving voice to individuals who may be situated outside the social mainstream, a place whose inspiration emerges from unsuspected paths and unconventional places.
Exhibition Highlights: A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America
The rarity of the artworks included in the exhibition A Shared Legacy reflect an ever-changing landscape in America. In many ways, folk art promotes a participatory approach to forming resilient communities, nation building and encouraging the importance in having a personal stake in an experimental government. The exhibition displays artwork that captures images that are often indicative of the fashion trends, technological changes, social political upheaval, or manifestations in public and private life. The prevailing notion of nationhood carried in the exhibition of A Shared Legacy reveals a medium intrinsically tied to the land and its history.
As Hollander passes the entrance corridor, she pauses by a series of two painted images of daily life and nineteenth century Alms Houses—charitable institutions established at the time as a physical refuge for members of society who had fallen ill and were consequently unable to care for themselves.
Painted by a German immigrant by the name of Charles C. Hoffman (1821-1882), little is known of the artist other than his talent as a lithographer. “There is a real precision, a crispness, and brightness to these works,” Hollander observes as we continue through the halls. The composition of the works point to a central cartouche set on a noticeable metal substrate, material readily available to artists at the Alms Houses. Hollander cites the seeming contradiction in these works, the rather idyllic representations of everyday life, compared to the often prevailing reality at the time, especially Alms Houses situated in commonly unfavorable conditions pervasive at what were referred to as the Poor Houses. The majority of these paintings were commissioned works by greater authorities, which likely factored into the idealization and surrounding aesthetics.
Many of the portraits in the exhibition symbolize the growth of an upper middle class and consumerist culture in America. Portraits of the Lamb family attributed to Daniel G. Lamont (1818-1883) for instance, portray family members beside fancy drapery and often fabrics denoting a status obtained through material comfort. Similarly, A Shared Legacy also carries the jewelry worn by the Lamb family, at a time when children were often seen wearing coral necklaces; these necklaces were believed to ward off the spirits causing infant mortality prevalent during this time.
In a similar vein, one young boy dressed in turquoise sits solemnly as a rather perfect portrait of James Mairs Salisbury by artist Ammi Phillips (1788-1865). Phillips was a prolific portraitist, capturing hundreds if not thousands of children’s’ portraits over the course of 50 years.
A narrative series comprised of three paintings by artist John Hilling (1822-1894) portrays the reality of anti-Irish Catholic sentiment that was prevalent in the early 1800s. Documentary and literal in its visual representation, the titles are more than revealing: The Old South Church, Looking the Old South Church, and Burning the Old South Church (c. 1854). This series of paintings reflect events of June 6, 1854, when a secret society known as the Know-Nothings burned a church to ashes in Bath, Maine harboring anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology. Hilling sought to document powerfully memorable and dramatic events through artistic renderings.
In addition to portraitures, A Shared Legacy also features a number of unique handcrafted sculptures. Perhaps one of the more provocative sculptures in the exhibition attributed to the workshop of Samuel Robb is life-sized wooden sculpture known as the The Girl of the Period. Carved in the late nineteenth century, this figure stands tall at 6’6’’ made between 1870 and 1885, satirizing a vain female described by British anti-feminist Eliza Lynn Litton in an article she wrote in the London Saturday Review. The sculpture portrays a woman with attitude puffing a cigarette in fancy dress stands ostentatious, flouncing her fringes, bows and colorful array of jewels. Show Figures were commonly used for purposes in early advertising, placed in front of tobacco stores in the streets. She was what was known as ‘A New Woman’ flouting convention.
Ironically, the phrase The Girl of the Period originated from Litton. “She was very much against the emergence of the New Woman,” Hollander said, “and a proponent of domesticity.” The sculpture and what it came to symbolize and represent was in itself a paradox. As the story unravels, in 1868, Litton later published an article under a pseudonym “deploring the creature who was more interested in her appearance than the cultivation of her mind,” only to republished years later under her real name, and the origins of what has now come to represent a rather derisive phrase, ‘The Girl of the Period.’
A few pieces in the adjoining exhibition Also On View are lighter and more amusing in nature. Walking towards the main hall of the museum, it is impossible to miss a giant, oversized molar greeting the public from center ceiling. In the 1840s, a majority of trade signs made for American businesses hung prominently in the streets, serving the clear purpose in immediately communicating what a business was. “I love looking at these teeth,” Hollander says. “You immediately knew what was being advertised: the services of a dentist.” And aptly so, as it is difficult to miss the point when standing face-to-face with a life-sized, three-dimensionally carved tooth obstructing the view. This molar once hung outside an American dental office during a time when dental services were quite limited in scope. In the mid 1800s, this trade sign aptly depicted in one glance the rather painful and dreaded dental experience. “I love that,” Hollander smiled, “I also kind of flinch when I look at it.”
Similarly memorable, another art piece sits just beside the lone molar. Hollander jokes, “Hey, look what you can have beautiful dentures!” Carved on a flat white board raised nearly an inch thick, the prevailing purpose is hard to miss with this one. Another example of a 1890s trade sign. Coincidentally, Volcanite—a type of rubber—was also invented at the time by one of the Goodyear Brothers. Replacing harsher materials commonly used previously including bone and wood, Volcanite allowed for a more pliable, moldable material for American’s first comfortable dentures.
Like all memorable art, these playfully large grinning teeth seem to say it all in a smile. Walking past, I couldn’t help but grin.
For hours and admissions, please visit: www.folkartmuseum.org