Published: February 21, 2012
Pamela and Tim Hill of Birmingham, Mich., are well known in the world of art and antiques as dealers in early Americana and folk art. They have been in the business for 40 years and participated in shows from New England to their home state of Michigan.
During this time, they have also built a personal collection that includes a wonderful selection of highly unusual and delightful walking sticks. An exhibition of this collection at the Columbus Museum of Art through April 1 is the first time these artistic creations have been on public view.
According to George Meyer in American Folk Art Canes , walking sticks were a popular fashion statement of the late Nineteenth Century when their use reached its peak. The decoration on the cane often reflected a person’s status or ego.
The folk art walking stick is more a social commentary on the part of the maker than the user, although they sometimes might be the same person. The carver transformed a common piece of wood into a sculptural symbol of his identity and/or world.
Adjunct curator of American folk art Michael Hall presented the walking sticks as sculptures. The originality and complexities in these amazingly shaped forms reflect the traits characteristic of folk art in general. Some of the pieces suggest the cultural life and makers’ values, while others are simply individual artistic expressions.
The exhibition is divided into 12 groupings: Natural Forms; Whimsies and Puzzles; Animals, Birds and Reptiles; Personages and Figures; Arms and Hands; Portraits and Faces; Expressions of Patriotism; Hallmarks of Fraternalism; Signs of Faith; Symbols of Authority; Accounts, Memories and Fantasies; and Artistic Style and Authorship. Each group contains examples expressing a common subject or similar aesthetic. The last includes multiple works of individuals: Mike Cribbons, H. Gauchenauer and Hub Celsh and a “Portable Seat and Walking Stick with Figures” by Hosea Hayden of Indiana. As most canes were not signed, the other cane makers are unknown here.
The first category surveys the stick itself: the imagination of the carver as he views the piece of wood in its natural setting becomes real as he shapes the cane. The sculptor seems to be the liberator, simply releasing the fish, snakes and human faces envisioned in the branch or shoot.
Perhaps because of the source of the raw material, animals, birds and reptiles frequently adorned the staffs. The snake, in particular, lent itself to the extended dimensions of the stick. The connection with the Garden of Eden also added to the popularity of this creature. While snakes are creeping up several of the sticks, other serpents encompass the entire sticks.
Many of the canes are obvious expressions of the carver’s faith, patriotism or fraternal society relationships. Crucifixes, the bible and scripture are depicted on several of the staffs. A wonderful carved and painted “Image of a Saint” echoes its New Mexico origin. The symbols of the Odd Fellows and Masonic lodges embellish a few sticks, while Lady Liberty, George Washington and soldiers ornament others.
The most impressive selections are variations of the human form from nude women to “Salt Mine Workers” to the representation of Tsar Alexander III. Many of these are not only outstanding pieces of sculpture, but also commentaries on then-current events.
The 105 sticks are witness to the imagination, expression and skill of self-taught artists. “Transforming a simple root or branch into a meaningful sculpture has endlessly inspired walking-stick carvers to whittle unique works of art †works that visually came alive at the point of their pocket knives,” writes Hall in the exhibition checklist. “As they whittle, they recorded their lives, their beliefs, their communal values, their very private musings, and certainly their personal senses of humor.”
On February 8, Hall, whose own collection of more than 270 folk art objects was sold to the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1989, presented a lecture titled “Folk Art Cliff Notes: Many Modes, Many Masters.” He surveyed the changing perception of folk art from its rise in the 1930s to the present. He spoke of the search for “truly” American art, the growth of patriotism, the lure of the primitive and the rise of “Outsider” art. His conclusion was that folk art is “design, patriotism, ethnicity, tradition, self-expression, history, personal fantasy, identity, craft, art, politics, communal values, utility text, etc.”
Walking sticks as folk art speak to many of these issues and this is quite apparent in “Carved and Whittle Sculpture.”
The museum is at 480 East Broad Street. For information, www.columbusmuseum.org or 614-221-6801.
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