Charles Burden was only hoping to let some light and fresh air into Maine's folk art scene when he began visiting museums last year to arrange visits by the American Folk Art Society in September. "Too often the best folk art is kept mostly in storage vaults," he explains. "The vaults are dim and cramped, and the pieces don't get shown nearly often enough - some have never been exhibited. I thought it would be good to bring them out and let people have a look at them."
Instead Burden, a retired pediatrician and a well-known folk art enthusiast, and fellow collector Raymond Egan, of Boothbay, found themselves creating the Maine Folk Art Trail, editing a book, and coordinating an outstanding series of folk art exhibits at eleven museums around Maine. "I had no idea how much work it would be," Burden says with a laugh.
The museums stretch from York to Searsport, and this summer and fall they are mounting simultaneous shows, Uncommon Treasures, featuring the best examples of folk art in their collections. And the best in Maine is really the best anywhere, Burden points out. "I think most experts consider Maine the foremost state in America for both quality and quantity of folk art," he says. "You may find more primitive portraits in Connecticut or Massachusetts, but Maine has just about everything else - outstanding hooked rugs, nautical folk art, woodsmen's carvings, simply amazing pieces of all sorts."
Each year some fifty active collectors in the American Folk Art Society visit a different part of the country to view folk art collections and discuss developments in the field. This year the society is coming to Maine, and Burden agreed to organize a tour of the state's top collections. "Ray Egan is an old friend and fellow collector, and he encouraged me to get as many museums as I could to participate," Burden recalls. "Almost every museum I contacted was excited about the idea." In total, more than five hundred works of folk art will be on display, and the best one hundred of them are included in the catalog, Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures 1750-1925
(Down East Books; 144 pages, $35, from which the following captions come.
Folk art covers a wide range of genres - painted portraits, decorated furniture, shadow boxes and silhouettes, pottery, weathervanes, even scrimshaw and figureheads. The unifying element is its lack of sophistication, its creation by common people for personal use or as gifts. They often lack perspective - think of the paintings of Grandma Moses, for example - and detail, but display a level of personality and innocence that professional art often lacks. Generally speaking, traditional American folk art dates from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s.
"A good piece of folk art makes you smile," Burden offers. "It might not be quite right, but you see what the creator was trying to do and it's charming. Almost all folk art objects have some sort of interesting story behind them of what life was like in Maine in the past. They tell of things interesting enough that people wanted to record them. Folk art really tells the story of everyday people in Maine."A Folk Art SamplerSelections from the Maine Folk Art Trail.
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 twenty-five shops in Portland, all peddling lottery tickets. One such shop would have been Major William Francis', 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.Lottery sign, maker unknown, c. 1800-30; painted wood, 40 inches x 30 inches; possibly Maine; Maine Historical Society; gift of Eben Cory.
You don't need to win the lottery to enjoy this sign at the Maine Historical Society (489 Congress St., Portland, 207-774-1822, www.mainehistory.org )
, where entrance costs less than five bucks. It is the third oldest institution of its kind in the country.
Weathervanes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries inspired artistic creativity. Here, a flattened profile of a cat walking along a pole invokes the posture of an actual feline on the roof where the weathervane originally was installed.Cat weathervane, maker unknown, date unknown; copper with gold leaf, 1.32 inches; origin unknown; the Helen Warren and Willard Howe Cummings Collection.
To see this copper cat go to the Colby College Museum of Art (5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, 207-859-5600, www.colby.edu/museum )
, which contains more than 5,500 works with a focus on American and contemporary art. Notable artists include John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Georgia O'Keeffe, Alex Katz, and many more.
Bedsteads and their textile furnishings were often the most valuable possessions of early Americans of means. Heavy bed rugs such as these were useful in keeping sleepers warm, but the attention that was paid to their design shows how highly they were valued as decorative objects. Although this bed rug resembles somewhat later hooked rugs that were used on floors, in this instance the wool yarn was actually sewn onto the coarsely woven base.Bed rug, maker unknown, c. 1740-60; wool on wool with later burlap backing, 85 1/2 inches (w) x 74 inches; probably Northern New England; bequest of Miss Elizabeth Perkins, 1952.
See this bed rug in one of the nine historic museum buildings run by the Museums of Old York (207 York St., York, 207-363-4974, www.oldyork.org )
. Its collections document the Colonial and Early National periods in the local area, as well as the more recent history of "the Yorks."
This expressive and imposing bust of a preacher is the work of an unknown, probably African-American, artist and appears to be made from southern yellow pine. When viewed in profile, the relatively flattened features and back of the head indicate that this aspect of the work was dictated by the diameter of the log from which it was carved.Head of a preacher, maker unknown, c. 1920s; pine wood, 19 1/2 inches x 9 inches x 9 inches; origin unknown; gift of John and Janet Marqusee.
To see this bust go to the Bates College Museum of Art (75 Russell St., Lewiston, 207-786-6158, www.bates.edu/museum.xml )
. Founded in 1955, the museum is built around the Hartley Collection, which emphasizes works of art on paper, and hosts scholarly exhibitions of historical and contemporary art.
A woodsman probably made this small wooden model of a caulked shoe during the winter while working in a lumber camp. It represents the footwear of a river driver who, with cant dog in his hands, poled the logs downstream in the early spring, running, jumping, and steering as he guided the logs or broke up a jam. On October 10, 1885, the Oxford County Record reported that "one of the drivers, with that manner peculiar to Penobscot rivermen, had just come down from P.E.I. [Prince Edward Island]. Of muscular build he was quite communicative, talking intelligently, if unduly loud, as he punched the floor of the boarding house bar room full of holes with the steel calks in the soles of his shoes."Model of a caulked shoe, maker unknown, c. 1900-30; probably spruce, 4 3/8 inches x 2 1/4 inches x 6 inches; Maine; museum purchase.
Find this boot at the Maine State Museum (83 State House Station, Augusta; 207-287-2301; maine.gov/museum )
. The museum is the only place in the state to see geological artifacts from Maine's natural, prehistoric, and historic past.
This painting reflects the artist's curiosity about the natural world around him, or perhaps was inspired by an exceptional catch. The fish depicted here, the now-extinct roachback trout, was a native Maine species probably known by John Mead, the artist, who lived in Bridgton in a local landmark, the "Stone House." Mead became well known locally for his variations of fish paintings, but his principal occupation was as a sign painter and decorative artist.Roachback trout, John Mead, c. 1870s; oil on canvas, 20 inches x 11 inches; Bridgton, Maine; on loan from a private collection,
Find this painting and a permanent exhibit of Rufus Porter's work, including a series of murals, at the Rufus Porter Museum (67 North High St. (Rte. 302), Bridgton, 207-647-2828, www.rufusportermuseum.org )
. A native of Bridgton, Porter went on to found Scientific American magazine in 1845.
Gravestones represented an important aspect of figural carving in New England from the seventeenth century onward. By the time that Oscar Blake carved this figure, grave markers had become quite elaborate, were produced from expensive materials, and were sold by enterprises that employed numerous craftspeople. A new, romantic conception of death had also taken hold by the mid-nineteenth century and had an important impact on the decorative treatment of gravestones that increasingly avoided the kind of terrifying imagery that had prevailed earlier in favor of more peaceful and neoclassical forms like angels and urns. Some relatively rare examples, such as this one, included portraits of the deceased.Headstone figure, Oscar Blake, c. 1860-80; marble, 10 inches x 8 inches x 4 inches; Saco, Maine; gift of Ernest Roberge.
See this gravestone along with more than 11,000 other historical objects at the Saco Museum (371 Main St., Saco, 207-283-3861, www.sacomuseum.org )
, one of the oldest museums in Maine.
This device, a "plow" in the form of a woman's leg, was used in the mackerel industry to score the sides of cleaned fish, making them appear to have split open as a result of being so fat, and fetching a correspondingly higher price. Found in a house in Georgetown, Maine, this example is remarkable not only for its anatomical form, but also for its being unusually decorative. With a metal band at the top, it is covered with intricate carving. There are chip-carved geometric patterns, floral motifs, and American flags. In this instance, a maker with a passion for decoration transformed a utilitarian object into a work of art.Mackerel plow, maker unknown, nineteenth century; wood and metal, 8 1/2 inches in length; probably Georgetown, Maine; Burden Collection.
Find this evocative plow and other nautically themed objects and artwork at the Maine Maritime Museum (243 Washington St., Bath, 207-443-1316, www.mainemaritimemuseum.org )
on the shores of the Kennebec River in Bath.
The Belle Brown was one of three sister schooners, each ninety-two feet long and 147 tons, built and owned by Snow and Farwell of Rockland, Maine, for local and coastal trades. The middle of the three, the Belle Brown was launched on June 20, 1871, and was built at a cost of $12,000. Her first captain, Ezekiel Nash, probably commissioned this celebratory painting, making sure that JA¼rgen Frederick Huge included a flag bearing his Masonic emblem as well as a pennant with his initials. It may have been Nash's first ship as a captain. He went on to sail the Belle Brown until 1878, when he switched to another Rockland schooner. The schooners were well suited to carrying lumber and lime to smaller ports.
JA¼rgen Frederick Huge (1809-78) was a German-American seafarer from Hamburg who seems to have settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, about 1830, marrying and establishing a grocery business there, styling himself as a "grocer and artist."Schooner Belle Brown of Rockland, Maine, J.F. Huge, 1873; watercolor and gouache on paper, 29 1/2 inches x 39 1/2 inches; Bridgeport, Connecticut; lent anonymously.
See this painting of a schooner along with maritime photography, boats, charts, maps, and more at the Penobscot Marine Museum (5 Church St., Searsport, 207-548-2529, www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org )
John G. Fish's work on this sperm whale's tooth and its platform is mentioned in an entry in his journal of April 19, 1869. Scrimshaw whales' teeth were enlivened with a wide variety of imagery important to the men who decorated them. This tooth is decorated with Masonic symbols, in particular an altar in the Blue Lodge, which is a lodge of Master Masons. Fish sailed as a master on the Ada A. Frye out of Boston on December 15, 1868. The ship entered the Straits of Magellan on February 26, 1869, and left the straits on March 24, 1869. The ship arrived in San Francisco on May 19 of the same year, following a total of 157 days at sea.Scrimshaw with Masonic symbols, John G. Fish, c. 1869; sperm whale tooth on a mahogany base, 8 1/4 inches x 6 1/4 inches x 5 1/2 inches; origin unknown; gift of Laura E. Fish, 1972.
See this Masonic scrimshaw at the Farnsworth Museum (16 Museum St., Rockland, 207-596-6457, www.farnsworthmuseum.org )
, a midcoast landmark since it first opened its doors in Rockland in 1948. Don't miss the Wyeth Center, featuring works by Andrew and James Wyeth.
To purchase a copy of Folk Art in Maine
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