Uncommon Folk: Traditions In American Art At Milwaukee Art Museum

Concerned about the potential disappearance of familiar New York City area landmarks, Vestie Davis created detailed renderings of a number of them around the 1970s, like “Na-than’s Coney Island,” 1971. It is a small but powerful reminder of New Yorkers at leisure. Gift of Ruth and Robert Vogele. —John R. Clembin photo

MILWAUKEE, WIS. — Among the oft-times overlooked glories of American art are creations of self-taught or folk artists. This authentically American artistic expression, growing out of a robust independent streak in our national psyche, has produced works unfettered by academic influences or the classical European style that dominated the art world in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

Inspired by regional cultural traditions, ethnic motifs or a myriad of other influences, these homegrown craftsmen and women have produced works of unusual beauty, power, whimsy and wonder. They have brought unsung voices to American art, reflecting the genius of independent folks with skills, imagination and often messages to share.

Drawing on the museum’s pioneering collection of folk art that dates to 1951 — when few other museums were actively acquiring it — the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) has mounted a huge exhibition titled “Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art.” Curated by Margaret Andera and on view through May 4, it draws on the museum’s folk art trove that now numbers 1,500 objects.

With nearly 600 paintings, carvings, furnishings, quilts, toys and other objects, it is the largest folk art exhibition ever mounted by the MAM. “Thanks to the museum’s rich holdings, ‘Uncommon Folk…’ is able to overview the far-reaching variety in folk and self-taught art through a lively and visually compelling installation that has something for everyone,” says curator Andera.

Greeting visitors to the exhibition is a familiar work, “The Newsboy,” a striking wood carving of a youngster on the run hawking a copy of the November 13, 1888 Pawtucket [R.I.] Record. This endearing figure of a “newsie” by an unknown creator is often used by MAM as a symbol of the museum.

A highlight of the exhibition for some will be the impressive display of some 30 duck decoys from all over the country. Species on view include Canada Geese, mallards, long-billed curlews, black ducks and various shorebirds. Some are elegantly painted; others are well-worn with chipping paint. All are artfully carved, capturing the birds in natural poses. As Andera observes, “While the function of the birds may be the same, the level of artistic expression varies from maker to maker.”

Notable decoys were made by one of the world’s best decoy carvers, Massachusetts native A. Elmer Crowell (1862–1952), such as Preening Black Duck, 1910, carved from cedar and pine and finished with paint and glass eyes. One of Crowell’s Canada geese sold not long ago at auction for nearly $700,000.

There are also examples of fish decoys, originally developed by Native Americans, which were used in ice fishing. Weighted so they could be lowered into the water through holes in the ice, they were attached to lines that fishermen could wiggle to simulate fish swimming. They would attract fish close enough to be speared.

The exhibition includes a wide variety of toys that reflect the imagination, skills and playful nature of their makers. Some go beyond simple amusement to include social or political commentary. Case in point is the ambitious and fascinating mechanical crank toy, “The World of Work,” which pokes fun at the American work ethic as the figures toil away endlessly cranking, grinding and sawing.

Equally intriguing is the 8-foot-tall “The Sporting World,” a monumental whirligig/weathervane that originally graced the front yard of a Pennsylvania farm. Its myriad components include an American flag, 11 individual figures, seesaws, a merry-go-round and propellers.

Particularly in the days before mass production and distribution in the Nineteenth Century, self-taught artists were active making useful objects for daily life. For example, walking sticks, adorned with bright colors, were created more as fashionable accessories for gentlemen than as walking aids.

Also featured in this category are a sewing desk and baking tray made by members of the Shakers. Their simple, functional design and high quality construction are typical of Shaker works that posses an elegance of form in spite of their lack of decoration.

It is intriguing how many diverse materials have been used in making varied objects. They range from a bristling “Porcupine,” 1978, created by Mexican-born Felipe B. Archuleta out of carved and painted wood with straw and hemp, to an appealing “Rock Dog,” circa 1945, created by Edgar Tolson of carved and painted limestone.

Objects on view document the long history of ordinary people appropriating existing materials to make extraordinary art. Bottle caps have been a particularly popular material for artmaking out of found objects. Iowa farmhands and husband and wife Clarence and Grace Wooley began making bottle cap figures when they were snowed in one winter. They first created a little church and then, over the next decade, produced several hundred sculptures like “Bottlecap Figure,” 1970, an eye-popping assemblage of bottle caps, nails and wood. Some of the Woolseys’ larger sculptures consist of as many as 30,000 bottle caps.

Quilts, originally made for utilitarian purposes as bed covers, eventually became more a recreational activity for women. Precise cutting, meticulous sewing and an astute selection of colorful pieces for accurate assemblage mark the enduring tradition of American quiltmaking.

One of the most colorful displays is of nine quilts, including three by the now-celebrated women of Gee’s Bend, Ala. Gee’s Bend, which began as a cotton plantation in the early 1800s, has a long tradition of exceptional quilters. Through years of trauma and change — the Civil War, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement — the resilient quilters of Gee’s Bend persevered, often using whatever materials they could lay their hands on.

The results, notably a Four Block Housetop quilt, 2000, by Rita Mae (“Rabbit”) Pettway, are visually rewarding, and often offer a glimpse into the creator’s life when the quilt was made. “Throughout the years,” Andera notes, “the attention to detail in these works never wavers.” She also points out that the “improvisational approaches to composition in these quilts recall the work of the leading Twentieth Century abstract and minimalist painters.”

Among the most impressive sections in the exhibition is that devoted to the work of self-taught African American artists, some of whom have become deservedly well known in recent years. Reflecting black art traditions across the country are artworks by William Edmondson, Bessie Harvey, William Hawkins, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Elijah Pierce. Memorable is Hawkins’ lumbering black elephant, “Jumbo Elephant #3,” 1989, ingeniously crafted out of enamel, wire, a tree branch, nails and collage on Masonite.

Best known of all the artists on view is the incomparable Grandma Moses (1860–1961), who started painting in her 80s and became an international celebrity before her death at age 101. Her untitled watercolor and gouache, created when she was around 90, offers a characteristically panoramic view of man, animals, houses, barns, fields and forests around her home up the Hudson River from New York City.

Andera mixes Grandma with a group of works from different periods and different regions, inviting viewers to compare and contrast. On view is a stylized, playful trio, “Dogs and Pups,” 1944, by Morris Hirshfield, and Vestie Davis’s marvelously detailed view of people on the boardwalk around “Nathan’s Coney Island,” 1971.

Polish-born Hirshfield (1872–1946) worked in New York’s garment industry until ill health forced his retirement in 1935. He took up painting and within a few years attracted the attention of art dealer Sidney Janis, who included two of his paintings in a famous 1939 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of self-taught artists. During his brief career, Hirshfield painted a dream world populated by animals, often in family groups, and occasionally people in a highly meticulous, deceptively naïve style, in sophisticated compositions with a keen eye for color.

Davis (1903–1978) specialized in depictions of people enjoying themselves amid Big Apple landmark buildings, parks and beaches that he feared would not survive the evolving needs of the city; he carefully rendered them with that in mind.

Another intriguing artist, Lawrence H. Lebduska (1894–1966), born in Baltimore but raised in Germany, worked as a decorative muralist for interior designer Elsie de Wolfe, participated in the WPA art program during the Depression, and exhibited for a decade before he caught the attention of the art establishment. His fantasy world, as reflected in “Hit-Mu-To (Hitler-Mussolini-Tojo),” 1942, showed abundant imagination and a sense of color and composition.

Another interesting artist, Simon Sparrow (1925–2000), was born in West Africa, grew up in North Carolina on a Cherokee reservation and ended up a street preacher in Madison, Wis. He sought to convey spiritual messages through his art, but his compositions are difficult to interpret because Sparrow mixed unfamiliar African spiritual symbols with Christianity and iconic images. Working in pastels, pencil and charcoal, he created intriguing works like a large, untitled and colorful mixed media on wood, 1984, containing numerous enigmatic symbols.

“Young Girl with a Cat,” circa 1955, is a large oil on canvas by Greek-born Drossos P. Skyllas (1912–1973), who settled in Chicago and devoted himself to making art. Creating what he called “only pure, realistic paintings” that he believed looked “100 percent like photographs,” he advertised himself as a portrait painter but sold no works in his lifetime. The reason is likely because his prices equaled those of well-known artists; he felt his own work deserved as much. “Young Girl” is typical of Skyllas’s meticulous attention to detail in romanticized images.

In line with the early and enduring American art tradition of painting portraits, self-taught painters have executed portraits of others or themselves. Ted Gordon (b 1924) created likenesses not to make a living but to explore his own personality through self-portraits. Gordon was born in Louisville, raised by grandparents of Lithuanian descent, and was employed for years in hospital administration in California. On the side, he worked obsessively on drawings of male faces, generally regarded as self-portraits. Gordon used a ballpoint pen, adding accents with colored markers on cardboard dividers he salvaged from boxes of X-ray film used in hospitals where he worked. On view is a series of his intense and powerful self-portraits, such as the haunting “Demonic Visage,” circa 1980. Gordon’s self-described “doodles” were discovered in the 1970s and today examples are in a number of museums in America and in Europe.

“Uncommon Folk” also features sections devoted to the work of such known folk artists as James Castle (highly detailed drawings of daily life in Idaho created with ink made from soot), Albert Zahn (carver of whimsical birds, toys, angels and animals), Edgar Tolson (Appalachian whittler), Lonnie Holley (a front yard installation in Birmingham) and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (a baker who recorded pop culture and current events in colorful paintings).

This exhibition underscores MAM’s strength as a leading repository for work by self-taught creators — and the broad appeal and importance of untrained artists in our national culture.

The Milwaukee Art Museum, sited on the shores of Lake Michigan, features an awesome, soaring, white “wings” addition by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It is at 700 North Art Museum Drive. For additional information, www.mam.org or 414-224-3200.

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