What is "folk art"? All definitions agree that it is created by people who aren't trained artists. It is not mass produced and is both functional and decorative, expressing life's joys — and sometimes sorrows — in everyday objects. Folk art includes items such as weathervanes, quilts, toys, signs, and chests, as well as portraiture and other decorative wall art. It has an established tradition of craftsmanship and style, which often ignores rules of perspective and uses simplified figures.
During the summer and fall of 2008, eleven Maine museums will exhibit their collections of traditional American folk art. In a single loop, you can follow the Maine Folk Art Trail up the scenic coast from York to Searsport, inland to Lewiston, Augusta, and Waterville; and on to hidden treasures such as Bridgton and New Gloucester.
These important exhibitions will feature more than 500 objects, all from Maine collections and most made in Maine. Many of the objects have never been exhibited before. The objects pictured here and their captions are from the accompanying book, published by Down East, titled Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures 1750-1925 , which includes more than 100 of the best examples of folk art in the exhibitions.
Fiddle, Eliphalet Grover, 1821
This musical instrument bears the inscription, "Made on Boone Island by Capt. Eliphalet Grover, 1821." Grover (1778-1855) was lighthouse keeper on Boon Island from 1816 until 1839 and made this and other objects using the scant materials he had at his disposal on the rocky outcropping off the coast of York. Here, he employed split-wood roof shingles to make the top and back of the fiddle. The extraordinary feature of the instrument is the carved and painted human head with which Grover embellished the scroll. Making objects from handy materials and fancifully decorating them with human forms was part of the "entrepreneurial spirit" that got Grover in trouble with the U.S. government. He was dismissed for having sold whale oil intended for the operation of the light and other charges.
Pine, maple, and walnut wood, bone, horn, catgut strings, the polychrome paint survives in full, 25.5'' x 8'' x 1.7''
Boon Island, York, Maine
Museums of Old York
Sign for the Portland Hook & Ladder Co. #2, Nahum Littlefield, c. 1874
Maine's growing port towns and cities of the nineteenth century rewarded those who could do a variety of jobs and capitalize on a range of opportunities. Nahum Littlefield was typical of folk artists and decorative painters who executed a wide range of commissions: He was a Portland ship carver from about 1850 to 1880 and produced figureheads, sternboards, billet heads, cabin carvings, and other projects for ship owners. Littlefield was also a member of the Portland Fire Department and served as its chief in the 1880s. This sign hung at the Portland Hook & Ladder Co. #2 on India Street. Littlefield was paid $34 for it by the City of Portland.
Wood, 3' x 9'
Saco Museum, On loan from Portland Fire Museum
Lottery sign, Maker unknown, c. 1800-30
Lotteries reached their peak of popularity in the 1820s and were a common way to raise money for private efforts to build bridges, canals, and roadways. In 1827, a critic complained that there were 25 shops in Portland, all peddling lottery tickets. One such shop would have been Major William Francis's, which operated from around 1810 until 1830. Francis bought and sold land and buildings and was an agent for the National Lottery. In 1822, he advertised his location as "Fortune's Temple" on Union Street. This sign, made by an unknown artist, was owned by Francis and advertised the gold coins to be won by engaging in the lottery craze.
Painted wood, 40'' x 30''
Maine Historical Society, Gift of Eben Cory
Sea chest, Maker unknown, late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century
The original snipe hinges, rings remaining from an earlier style of becket, and thick board construction indicate a rather early date for this blue-painted chest. It has three tills in an unusual arrangement, and distinctive decorative painting on the inside of the lid and on the lids of the tills. Seamen did sometimes decorate their own chests, more often they were decorated by a more talented fellow sailor or someone ashore. Three chests have been located with similar construction and decoration, at least two of which were found in attics in Massachusetts. They were likely all made by the same carpenter, but significant differences in the quality of execution of the decoration suggests that different hands were involved in that aspect of the work.
Wood, rope, canvas, metal, and paint;
15.75'' x 16.75'' x 39.5''
Maine Maritime Museum, Burden Collection
Charles Glidden, E.E. Finch, 1839
Like many paintings of children from the mid-nineteenth century, this one is given additional visual interest by the addition of an animal, in this case a dog. The sitter, Charles Glidden, was about two years old when his portrait was painted and the picture descended in his family to the donor. E.E. Finch (active 1833-47) enjoyed some popularity among Maine's elite during the 1830s and 1840s, especially in the areas of Augusta, Waterville, and Waldoboro. Charles Glidden's parents, Col. John and Mary Glidden, were from Newcastle, Maine.
Oil on canvas, 24'' x 20''
Farnsworth Art Museum, Bequest of Mrs. Ralph Earle, 1986
Ship in a bottle, maker unknown, twentieth century
This is one of 26 such models in the museum's collection. At least some of these were made by sailors at sea.
Glass, cork, wood; 12.375'' x 3.125''
Penobscot Marine Museum, Gift of Morton and Dena Katzenberg
Village Street, Massachusetts, Artist unknown, c. 1845-50
The artist of this view of an unidentified Massachusetts village captured it in the throes of industrialization. While livestock and horse-drawn vehicles travel the road, new buildings, including an early factory, are carefully rendered in perspective in the background.
Oil on canvas, 28'' x 48''
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ellerton M. Jette, Colby College Museum of Art, The American Heritage Collection
Spruce Gum Boxes, Makers unknown, c. 1880-1920
Woodsmen usually carved spruce-gum boxes during leisure time in lumber camps through long winters of woods work. The boxes were typically carved in the form of a small book with a spine and a sliding lid. They were intended to hold bits of collected spruce resin that, when warmed and softened, could be chewed like gum.
A variety of techniques and design motifs was used in the decoration of the boxes. Both natural forms and common symbols were executed in inlay, incised, enhanced with pigment, burned into the surface, or created with some combination of these techniques.
Hard and soft woods
Maine State Museum, Gifts of Charles E. Burden, M.D., Sarah P. Cunningham, and Eve E. Gardner and John H. Gardner in memory of Virginia K. Gardner
Valentine, Ebenezer Legrow, c. 1835
The attribution of this complex watercolor to Ebenezer Legrow is based on its similarity to a few small family records with his signature. Perhaps half of the makers of New England-decorated documents did not identify themselves, regardless of whether or not they were amateurs or professionals. The valentine is in the form of a true Lover's Knot, a genre with Elizabethan roots. This work is notable for its sweet ephemerality, a quality that it shares with the gift or spirit drawings accomplished by Shaker sisters at Mount Lebanon, New York, barely a decade later.
Watercolor and ink on paper, 12'' x 14.25''
Bates College Museum of Art, Loaned by
Deborah N. Isaacson Trust
Weathervane, attr. to James Lombard, c. 1900
This weathervane, carved in the form of a rooster, is attributed to James Lombard, a farmer and cabinetmaker from Bridgton and Brownfield, Maine, who was born in 1868. Roosters and hens were favorite motifs for the makers of weathervanes in southern Maine from the early nineteenth century onward. While the early examples were quite plain, the later rooster and hen weathervanes were examples of virtuoso carving. As a rule, they were made of wood and painted and being of perishable materials were likely to suffer damage from the weather. In this instance, the weathervane was reinforced with an iron support.
Pine with iron support and traces of paint on surface, 19.5'' x 26.5''
Rufus Porter Museum, on loan from a private collection
To read more about the book Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures 1750-1925 or to order it, click here . For the article in the June 2008 issue of Down East, click here .