Published: June 2, 2008
By midsummer, when the Maine Folk Art Trail is in full swing, collectors and vacationers will be able to view one of the broadest slices of Americana local to this state that has ever been presented. The 11 museums participating in the event have dug deeply into their troves to present works that comprise a comprehensive survey of folk art as it evolved in Maine during the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Influenced as much by geography as social position, by need as much as the need for self-expression, the works by schoolgirls and sailors, carvers, quilters, cabinetmakers and painters offer rare insights into the activities of daily life. Besides the art, the Maine Folk Art Trail invites a tour of the state from Down East to the upper regions of Penobscot Bay and as far west as Bridgton. Fortunately, the exhibits run well into the late fall, giving visitors ample opportunity to do the trail in several small bites
Influenced as much by geography as social position, by need as much as the need for self-expression, the works by schoolgirls and sailors, carvers, quilters, cabinetmakers and painters offer rare insights into the activities of daily life. In keeping with the basic definition of folk art, much of the work is anonymous. Some of it weaves the genealogy of founding and prominent families into finely crafted documents. There are Shaker gifts, toys lovingly crafted, iconic signs, crewel bed hangings and wholly preserved room murals to be seen. There are portraits by limners and celebrated masters. All told, the items on view number in the hundreds.
Besides the art, the Maine Folk Art Trail invites a tour of the state from Down East to the upper regions of Penobscot Bay and as far west as Bridgton. Fortunately, the exhibits run well into the late fall, giving visitors ample opportunity to do the trail in several small bites.
The project grew out of the enthusiasm of two prominent folk art collectors who make Maine their home. Charlie Burden and Ray Egan wanted to do something different for the American Folk Art Society’s annual meeting. After approaching a few museums, the idea took off and a statewide effort was launched. According to the curators and museum directors involved, the idea was stroke of genius.
For the museums that rally under the banner of the Maine Folk Art Trail, the project provided an opportunity to further their mission. For small, historical museums that have lately found themselves on the outside of the mainstream, it created an opportunity to find relevancy in the Twenty-First Century. For museums with extensive permanent collections that do not generally brand themselves as folk art museums, the effort gave reason to dig through permanent collections, some long warehoused, and surface remarkable examples of Maine folk art rarely before on view.
This following overview of the museum exhibitions is, for convenience, divided geographically into three parts, starting with the coastal venues, moving inland and concluding in the western part of the state.
The exhibition at the Museums of Old York, running through November 28, inaugurates the Remick Barn, a new facility that is both gallery space and education center. Interestingly, in the collegial spirit that seems to bind the people of Maine, the historic barn, which was fully documented before being dismantled and reconstructed, is a gift of the Remick family. In an extension of the same spirit, the exhibition at the Museums of Old York became as much a local event as an institutional one, with museum members and friends meeting weekly with experts to discuss the foundations and meanings of folk art.
Ultimately, Scott Stevens, exhibition director, and Cynthia Young-Gomes, acting curator, drew from the museums’ permanent collection as well as private collections in the area. Significant among the 150 items on display is a carved fiddle head by Eliphalet Grover and a wooden box made by the Boon Island lighthouse keeper, circa 1820. The Mary Busman crewel bed hangings, made in the 1730s and in remarkable condition, are also on view.
Stationed just inside the front door of the Saco Museum, a whimsical but beautifully crafted toy rocking horse covered in hide opens the exhibit of carvings, weathervanes, hooked rugs and samplers, painted trays and toys. The Saco’s real strength, however, is the depth of its collection of paintings by deaf artist John Brewster Jr. Andrea Cochrane, museum director, said that although much of the display is drawn from the Saco’s permanent collections, there are items on loan from Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Tate House and the Portland Fire Museum. The Saco Museum exhibit runs through September 28.
John Mayer of the Maine Historical Society in Portland said the museum sees “folk art as a material expression of human experiences, events and emotions that measures the tension between continuity and change.” The modern day example, he added, would be MySpace or scrapbooks. Opening on June 27 and running through December 30, “Art of the People: Folk Art in Maine” features 70 objects. Culled from the Maine Historical Society’s permanent collection, it includes portraits, Nineteenth Century quilts, samplers, carvings, hooked rugs and works on paper. Among the highlights are works by Persis Sibley, circa 1830, renowned for her schoolgirl art. Accompanying the Sibley art is a rare portrait miniature, circa 1844, of her with her child. In keeping with Meyer’s focus of showing folk art through a “historical filter,” the exhibition touches on the recent past with vernacular photos from the 1950s and 1960s.
In Bath, the state’s seagoing culture dominates at the Maine Maritime Museum. “Mariner Made: Folk Art by Those Who Went to Sea,” which runs through October 13, is highlighted by scrimshaw and sea journals, ship models, paintings, carvings, decorated sea chests, shadow box models, decorated tools and knot work. Although the majority of offerings were made by sailors, there are some made by shipboard passengers. Among the highlights is a painted canvas wheel cover, its maker unknown. Another is a model of the brig MicMac , maker also unknown, and an 1830 watercolor of the ship Lady Washington by Francis Rittall.
Farther up the coast, the Farnsworth Art Museum’s curator Michael Komanecky said he “didn’t understand the depth of our folk art collection until Charlie Burden came to us.” Without delving too deeply into what can be a hotly debated argument on parameters of folk art, Komanecky added, “We just let the objects speak to us.”
There were discoveries and revelations, among them a litho portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which on its own would not command so much attention. Given that it is framed in an intricately handcrafted frame of seashells, the attraction is heightened. The combination, Komanecky said, drives home the point that folk art and American life were as intricately interwoven as the shells incorporated into the frame. Another outstanding item that surfaced is a ship’s figurehead said to be Commander Perry. At the foundation of the Farnsworth’s collection are memory paintings by Grandma Moses. Now celebrating its 60th year, the Farnsworth will have the items on display through November 30.
Searsport, as the crow flies, is only about 28 miles from Rockland, but rather than a booming economic center, it is a small town of about a thousand inhabitants situated on a rocky swath of coastline. The Penobscot Marine Museum, founded by the descendants of local sea captains, has a campus of 14 buildings. Niles Parker, curator, said that, given this wealth of space, it made sense for the items in “Finest Kind: Folk Art from the Penobscot Bay” to be integrated into various collections.
Running through October 19, “Finest Kind” features practical art, such as signs, decoys and “mackerel plows.” Highly stylized, these tools of the trade are decorated with initials and carvings. Boats with decorative elements, such as carved and painted wood applied to the bow and stern, epitomize what appears to be an almost primal need to create, to personalize and to visually satisfy.
Moving away from the coast and into the midlands, Colby College Museum of Art at Waterville, on the west bank of the Kennebec River, has an outstanding permanent collection of American art, which emphasizes works by Twentieth Century American artists, many of whom lived or worked in Maine. Mounting Maine Folk Art demanded taking a different look at the items in the permanent collection. “We saw that folk art can be stronger than the more academic works in that they suggest the habits of daily life,” said Elizabeth Finch, the Peter and Paula Lunder curator of American art.
Finch gave credit to Hannah Blunt, curatorial assistant, and Greg Williams, assistant director of operations, for their behind-the-scenes dedication in selecting a representative body of work from the museum’s extensive American Heritage Collection, a 1956 gift of Edith and Ellerton M. Jetté. There are paintings by anonymous artists and Thomas Chambers, G.J. Griffin, R.G. Hall, A.P. Chase and John Brewster Jr. The exhibit also features a large carved wood lion, circa 1835, from Newbury, Vt., an intriguing Nineteenth Century cigar store Indian, a copper and gold leaf cat weathervane and vital cultural and artistic documents.
In Augusta, Deanna Bonner-Gatner, curator of photography, art and archives, and Sheila McDonald, assistant director at the Maine State Museum, have created a “mini folk art trail throughout the museum” by integrating stoneware and redware, spruce gum boxes, decorated sleds and skates and other personalized items from their permanent collection into standing exhibitions. Among the paintings on view is a full-length portrait of boy with dog attributed to A. Ellis. The flat, naïve rendering is “one of the best pieces we have seen,” McDonald said.
The Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, perhaps best known for the Marsden Hartley Memorial Collection, has taken a radical diversion from its usual fare in presenting folk art. Forty-five works on paper and many document boxes, on loan from the Deborah N. Isaacson Trust †which curator Bill Low calls a “world class” collection †will be on view through December 14. Among the highly detailed, mostly watercolor works are family documents, birth records, penmanship studies and bookplates. The creators were men, women and children. There are also works by itinerant artists who specialized in family records.
Sabbath Day Lake Shaker Museum at New Gloucester is located within the confines of the only surviving active Shaker community in the world. “The Human and the Eternal: Shaker Arts in its Many Forms” features more than 100 folk art objects created by Shakers in the state during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
Objects on display include Shaker gift drawings, Shaker drawings of Maine Shaker villages, oval boxes with wood burned designs, wood carvings, embroidered boxes, fancy baskets, decorated utility items, hooked rugs, painted frames, needlework, mini pails and sieves, still lifes and landscapes. There are also paintings on silk, tins, vases, quilts and samplers. The Shaker villages of Alfred and Sabbath Day Lake are the primary sources for the exhibit. The exhibition runs through Columbus Day and will reprise in 2009.
Bridgton, in the western part of Maine, is home to the recently opened Rufus Porter Museum. Porter contributed to American culture as an artist, musician, teacher, inventor and founder of Scientific American magazine. Starting out as a portrait miniaturist, he matured into a muralist. The museum contains a complete set of Porter murals conserved from a house at 67 North High Street. In addition to the Porter works, there will be examples of American furniture, grain painted boxes, stencil work and portraits. Additionally, the museum begins an exploration of the cultural heritage of western Maine. Settled by wealthy landowners, the area is a repository of decorative arts and paintings.
Supporting the Maine Folk Art trail is an illustrated book. Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures, 1750‱925 features more than 100 items from the exhibitions along with commentary with curators and experts. It is available through Down East Books.
There will be an all-day folk art symposium at Bates College Olin Arts Center on September 28. Discussion will include portrait painters, schoolgirl art, rug hooking, scrimshaw, glaze-decorated redware, paint decorated furniture and Shaker art. For more information on the symposium, visit www.mainefolkarttrail.org .
Please note, any museums whose opening dates have not been stated already have exhibitions on view. For more information on individual exhibitions, visit www.mainefolkarttrail.org .org or go directly to the institutions’ websites.
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