Published: July 3, 2007
Fanciful utilitarian forms accentuated by a seemingly endless palette of brilliant colors enhancing classic Old World Germanic motifs †these are the hallmarks of a style of highly revered Americana known simply as Pennsylvania folk art. Long associated with and often misattributed to the eastern portions of the state, continued scholarship and a new exhibition sheds new light on the masterful folk designs created throughout Pennsylvania, particularly in the western counties.
“Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition,” a comprehensive exhibition organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, explores the folk art of the western regions of the state and examines the similarities and differences, county by county, of the wares produced there from the mid-Eighteenth to the late Nineteenth Century. The exhibition, on view through October 14, brings together almost 400 significant examples, virtually all of which have been loaned from private collections.
The forms range from a simple stoneware jug transformed into a work of art with the stroke of a layman’s cobalt-dipped brush to the intricate and colorful hand painted birth, marriage and death certificate fraktur. They speak volumes about the region and its immigrant inhabitants.
With many of the western counties originally settled by Mennonites, the exhibition also marks the contrasting decorative techniques between the communal sects in the west as compared to their more commonly known brethren in Eastern Bucks and Berks County.
These energetic and sometimes vigorously painted objects, however, are oftentimes perceived in stark contrast to the bland dress and the subtle ways of their Mennonite makers.
“Their personal clothes were drab, it is true,” notes J. George Frederick in regard to the Amish and Mennonites in his 1936 book Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery, “but this was the only severe restriction their religions imposed on color, line and form. In fact, this very deprivation had its effect in heightening their interest in color and design in other directions. Instead of decorating their persons, they decorated their household goods.”
When the idea for the exhibition was first broached by the Westmoreland, curator Barbara Jones received it enthusiastically, utilizing the thematic classification of “wood, paper, cloth and clay.” As the scope of the exhibition grew, so did the four categories, now titled “The Decorative Furniture of Somerset County, Pennsylvania,” “Pennsylvania Fraktur,” “Western Pennsylvania Textiles” and “Western Pennsylvania’s Stoneware Potters.” The museum invited four guest curators to cull materials for the exhibition, Charles R. Muller, R. David Brocklebank, Harley N. Trice and Phil Schaltenbrand, respectively. A subcategory of the stoneware exhibit, “Tanware,” is curated by Frank and Susan Swala.
Each of the curators proved their worth by dipping into very private collections that “live in houses,” as Jones so aptly put it. Rarely seen, these items, many considered to be regional icons, have been brought together for the first time. The volume of items is also incredible, says Jones, quickly pointing to the 80 fraktur on display that were executed by 29 artists from throughout the state. The exhibit also includes 18 pieces of Soap Hollow paint decorated furniture, nearly 200 pieces of pottery and a large collection of textiles and embroideries that have led to the identification of at least two new schools.
The Decorated Furniture of Somerset County, Pennsylvania
The distinctive and vibrantly painted and stenciled furniture of Soap Hollow is featured in the first portion of the exhibition. The region, aptly named after the tradition of the soap making women that resided there in the Nineteenth Century, recorded its first Mennonite inhabitant in 1780 and its first listed cabinetmaker, John Sala, in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
Guest curated by Muller, author of the 2002 book Soap Hollow: The Furniture and its Makers, the exhibition features examples loaned by more than a half-dozen collectors. Eighteen pieces of decorated furniture are presented for study, consisting of examples by Jacob Knagy and seven Soap Hollow makers.
Noting their geographic isolation, located great distances from metropolitan areas, Jones commented that the “Somerset County makers developed a distinctive style of their own.” Some of the cabinetmakers, such as John Livingston, the maker of an exquisite “Chinese” red and stenciled three-over-four-drawer chest in the exhibition, lived their entire lives in Soap Hollow.
When compared to the fancier Mennonite furniture from the eastern counties, Jones states, “The work of the Mennonites in Soap Hollow is quite different from the Mennonites and Amish in the Lancaster communities. The style was much more decorative in the East and much simpler in the West, there was more stenciling in the West, and more freehand decoration in the East.”
A highlight is an inscribed 1852 chest of drawers by John Sala. Painted with a red undercoat and masterfully grain painted, it appears to have a combination of freehand and stenciled designs featuring pinwheels, a bird on the scrolled slat and faux ivory escutcheons.
Created primarily from the mid-Eighteenth to the mid-Nineteenth Centuries, fraktur blossomed into uniquely rich, colorful and iconographic forms of expression that were associated with a variety of rites pertaining to social life, including births, baptisms, marriages and death.
Fraktur can be traced back to early European folk culture and the word was derived from a distinctive German style of script featuring “fractured” pen strokes. Despite the Old World characteristics, the art of the Pennsylvania fraktur is purely American.
More than 80 colorful and uniquely composed fraktur comprise this segment of the exhibition, co-curated by Jones and Brocklebank.
The fraktur culled from two private collections have been divided into two distinctive groups, each representing a comparison of the similarities and differences in the art form from opposing sides of the state.
Forty examples, nine of them by Westmoreland County artists working from 1788 to the 1870s, are on loan from one private collection. Twenty contrasting fraktur from eastern Pennsylvania, including Center, Bucks, Dauphin, Schuylkill and Lycoming Counties, are on loan from another collection.
“We hung this part of the exhibition on opposing walls so that you could study the ‘East/West’ aspects and be able to see not only the similarities, but also the differences,” said Jones. “There is a huge difference in style. You look at the ‘West’ side of the room and see that the colors were more limited, the designs much more complex. Then you look to the ‘East’ and can see the bigger motifs, more angels, people, big hearts in the center&†something bolder,” she said.
Five extraordinary examples of Johann Karl Scheilbeler’s fraktur are all displayed in a grouping, allowing viewers to note the characteristics and wide range of his work. In contrast, there are six John George Busyaeger fraktur hanging nearby so as to allow study of the two often misattributed artists.
Busyaeger, active between 1809 and 1841, was, by far, the most prolific of the fraktur artists in Westmoreland County with at least 35 percent of the known local works attributed to him. One example on view uses a colorful motif made of pinwheel lilies, thistles and berries, created as a birth and baptism certificate for Elisabeth Barbara Wagner, born April 18, 1855, and baptized May 18, 1855. Like nearly all of the artist’s works, it is signed “Made by J.G. Busyaeger.”
Western Pennsylvania Textiles
Needlework samplers are the focus of the textile exhibit, with a wide variety of examples on view ranging from memorial works to intricate school girl pictorials. Guest curator Trice selected 33 Nineteenth Century samplers that represent seven southwestern Pennsylvania counties, including works from four newly identified needlework schools in Allegheny, Beaver and Westmoreland Counties.
More than a dozen collections were tapped, private and institutional, to present a broad representation of works ranging from the traditional Germanic pieces decorated with symbols and motifs to the pictorial views favored by the English schools.
Due to the quality and quantity of surviving works, the Mary Tidball School is the best known western needlework school. Located in a suburb of Pittsburgh, the school was active between 1834 to 1845, and is regarded for the large, highly stylized and brightly colored works.
One of the more interesting examples is a Tidball School linen and wool on linen colorful needlework depicting potted strawberry plants ripe with fruit, trees with roosting birds and an appealing floral border. It is on loan from The American Folk Art Museum.
“The most significant aspect of the textiles exhibit is the identification of the new schools,” states Jones. Among the newly identified schools is the Star School, so named because of seven starlike clusters that appear over the building on each of the identified samplers. The Harmonie School in Beaver County is another of the newly identified schools.
A sampling of regional woven coverlets and an elaborately decorated Civil War quilt commemorating the service of Benjamin Franklin Lea, on loan from the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, have also been included.
Western Pennsylvania’s Stoneware Potters
The largest of the exhibitions from the standpoint of volume is the stoneware, guest curated by Schaltenbrand, author of Big Ware Turners: The History and Manufacture of Pennsylvania Stoneware, along with Frank and Susan Swala, who curated the Tanware display. More than 200 examples demonstrate the range of size, shape, decoration and color of the wares that were produced in six neighboring counties of western Pennsylvania. A host of collectors came together to make the exhibition possible, and many of these pieces have never before been publicly exhibited.
Profusely decorated with a combination of stenciled and freehand techniques, much of the crockery transcends the boundaries and is now seen as art. Such is the case with a monumental 12-gallon crock by A.V. Boughner with the stenciled maker’s mark surrounded by bands of foliate decoration with rows of encircled stars banded across the top and the bottom of the vessel.
“People crocks” fired in the Fayette County kilns of John and Norval Greenland are on view, as are examples attributed to an unknown maker from Uniontown. While the majority of the figural decorations were primitive depictions, one unusual 2-gallon whiskey jug features a brushed cobalt stenciled tavern scene with a barkeep serving two apparently intoxicated patrons seated at a table.
An advertising piece, an elaborately decorated spaniel seated on an elevated base that is marked with the incised name of a local druggist, exemplifies the diverse variety of wares offered by the enterprise, ranging from “Seagars and Tabaco” to “Paint and Fancy Goods.” Other items included grave markers, commemorative trinkets and doll heads, the latter probably made by a caring father who found porcelain versions either too scarce or too expensive.
The discovery of a tan fire clay in New Geneva in the late Nineteenth Century sparked new industry in the region. The unique appearing tan bisque pots, decorated with an ochre slip, reinvigorated the desirability of stoneware, whose popularity had dulled with the introduction of items such as mass-produced glass canning jars. New Geneva pottery was highly sought-after, and the proximity to riverboat tourists prompted potters to create novelties such as small pitchers and flower pots with intricate decorations.
A series of programs at the museum include gallery tours conducted by the curators on July 19 and August 16. An 80-page illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition with essays by each of the guest curators. It is available for $29.95 from the Westmoreland. The Westmoreland is at 221 North Main Street. For information, 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org.
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