Archive for the ‘Folk Art’ Category

Took a break from the outside world yesterday and finally got to see the film Maudie which is about the late Canadian folk artist and national treasure, Maud Lewis.  Sally Hawkins lovingly portrays the artist and Ethan Hawke  serves as her rough and surly husband. It is an absolutely charming and moving film, one that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the creative drive.

Or in the human spirit.

It captures that compulsive drive that so many self taught artists, particularly folk artists, possess. It is an inherent need and desire to have a means of expression using whatever is at their disposal. Looking around my studio now, I feel spoiled beyond belief by the materials I have on hand. Or by the fact that I am relatively healthy and can hold a brush easily in my hands. Thinking about Maud makes me feel a little guilty for not using all my advantages and painting even more.

It is, simply put, a lovely film. In these dark days filled with stupidity and hatred, it is a breath of fresh air — cool Nova Scotian air!— to focus on that image of a arthritis-wracked little woman sitting in front of her humble window in her tiny remote cabin, happily painting the world as she saw it and as she wanted it to be.

Here’s a little video that gives a brief history of Maud Lewis.

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Ralph Fasanella - Night Game/ 'Tis a Bunt 1981

Ralph Fasanella – Night Game/ ‘Tis a Bunt 1981

GC Myers -Foundation smAh, the dark days of winter are receding.  The trees are budding out and the green of the grass (under the newly fallen four inches of snow!) is pushing aside the dead growth of a long gone last year.  The robins have returned and once again the world makes sense–  the daily metronome that is major league baseball returns today.

It’s opening day.

I am not going to wax poetic today about the game, its history or the place that it holds in the hearts of so many.  It just feels like the real New Year’s Day for me and many other fans, that day on which the year truly begins.

The painting at the top, Night Game/ ‘Tis a Bunt,  is one of my favorite baseball paintings from the great folk painter Ralph Fasanella.  I love this particular piece and the way the baseball diamond feels more like a real diamond in an ornate and wondrous setting.  Great piece.  And this piece on the right is from my own baseball series from a few years back.  I loved doing that series and these pieces remain among my personal favorites.  I haven’t painted one in a while but sometimes think about revisiting that old ballfield.

For this Sunday Morning Music, in honor of the game, I’m going to make it a double-header.  First, there’s Take Me out to Ballpark, as played by Harpo Marx on I Love Lucy in 1955 , which is Cheri’s all-time favorite.  I’ve shown it several times but it’s so darn good, it never gets old.  And after that there’s  bluesy 1976 homage to late great pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter which is called, of course, Catfish.

Have a great Sunday and hopefully you’ll get to hear the umpire call out “Play ball!

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Vintage Baseball Photos 1800'sFor me,  Punxsutawney Phil is not the ultimate predictor that winter is coming to an end.  No, it is those first reports from Florida and Arizona that baseball’s Spring Training is beginning that does it for me.  The baseball is in the air  once more and I feel so much better when I am immersed in the rhythms of baseball.

And there is such a rhythm.  With its 162 games played over its six month season, it is present in some form on a daily basis for those who follow the game.  Each day brings something new that adds to the game’s long history, to its poetry and legend, to its voluminous statistics, to its never-ending debates over the superiority of teams, players and eras.  For someone like me who is a huge fan of the game’s folklore and history, nothing could be better.

Speaking of folklore, the photo at the top is perhaps the oldest image of the game, taken sometime before 1870.  It sold a few years ago on eBay for  $3800.  It shows a group of schoolboys at the Bluff School in Claremont, New Hampshire.  It was used in  Ken BurnsBaseball documentary and was taken by the early photographic studio of French & Sawyer which operated in Keene, NH.   Their partnership dissolved in 1870 so the photo was taken before that time.  It could be as early as the late 1850’s,  pre-Civil War.  The interesting thing is that there is action in the photo, a rarity for any photos of the era.  It also shows the players in positions that closely resemble today’s game which adds to that feeling of connection through time that is a part of the game.

The painting below is an early painting of the game.  I don’t know who painted it or when and can’t find anything about it.  It was listed on a folk art site and is no longer there so details on it are sketchy.  I think it’s a fun piece and reminds me that baseball is coming soon and winter is coming to an end.

The Pigs Baseball Club Ca 1890 21 x 30

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Merry-cemetery-Sapanta-RomaniaIt’s a few days before Halloween which conjure up all sorts of macabre images, especially those of creepy cemeteries.  I am not one of those people who are repelled by the thought of cemeteries and I am sure I have mentioned my fondness for cemeteries on this blog.

I’ve always been attracted to the peacefulness of them, the shape of the stones and the names inscribed on them.  I try to imagine the lives behind those stones and names, trying to somehow connect with their essence.  I even speak to them sometimes, especially those that I know or those who have become my favorites in the cemeteries where we regularly walk.  For instance, I always say hello to one couple with  what I consider  wonderful names– Arthur and Flora Greengrow.

Grim Reaper Figure at Base of Tombstone

Grim Reaper Figure at Base of Tombstone

While many of us here are scared a bit by cemeteries, there are place where that is not the case.  There is, for example, Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, Romania.  It is filled with brightly colored wooden tombstones that are carved with a sometimes humorous limerick and naively painted images depicting the deceased at work or play .  Sometimes, however, the stones show how the person died.   These images can be a bit gruesome but even then there is a lightness about the tombstone.  You see, they are aligned with the Dacian culture which is associated with the Zalmoxian religion which has a differing view on death compared to most, seeing it as a moment of great joy filled with the anticipation of the better life that is waiting.

With the bright blue tombstones and descriptive and often humorous limericks  ( there is a very funny one about a woman where the  voice of the limerick is her son-in-law who hopes she is happy now because he doesn’t want her back), Merry Cemetery has become a worldwide tourist attraction with crowds traveling to see the 800-some tombstones.  I guess it’s always a Happy Halloween in Sapanta.

Here a few views of some of the tombstones:

Merry Cemetery Tombstones  Romania

Merry Cemetery Tombstones Romania

Merry-Cemetery-Romania- Tombstones showing means of death

Tombstones with a boy drowning and a girl being hit by car

Merry-Cemetery-Romania- Young Man being hit by train

Young Man being hit by train

Merry-Cemetery-Romania- Decapitation Tombstone

Decapitation Tombstone From WW II Era


Top of Tombstones, Merry Cemetery

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Singleton Glad You Dead You Rascal YouSome of the first things I ever did artistically as a somewhat mature person were bas-relief  carvings.  In a way, it formed the technique that I adopted as a painter.  I suppose that’s why I am so drawn to carvings when I come across them.  There’s something very appealing to me in the idea of a flat surface that has this raised, tactile surface. Like a painting that is also available in braille.  I can imagine the artist running his hands over the piece as he works, the ridges and valleys sliding gently underneath in a most comforting way.

Smithsonian American Art Museum - Donald W. Reynolds CenterI recently stumbled  across the work of Herbert Singleton ,  a New Orleans folk artist who made wonderful and colorful carvings such as the piece at the top, Glad You Dead You Rascal You, which depicts a New Orleans funeral procession.  Singleton’s life story is similar in may ways with other folk artists– a life filled with missteps and violence, run ins with the law and addictions.  He spent the better part of 14 years in prison and died in 2007 from lung cancer at the age of 62.  But in his short time here, Singleton created a powerful body of  carved work that documented his world and goes well beyond the label of folk art or self-taught art.  It is not benign work .  It often rails against social injustice and hypocrisy with great gusto.

I was first attracted to some of his Voodoo Protection Stumps, such as the one shown just below, which are carved from  half of a log with  multiple colorful faces emerging from one side and the bark remaining on the backside.  There is an immediacy and vibrancy to the images and color that make them really ring out. Singleton’s work is such a great example of   an artist who will not be held captive to their circumstance,   will not succumb to the hardships and obstacles that that they face.  They use their life and whatever means they can muster to express their place in this world.

SingletonVoodooProtectionStump 2

The piece at the top of this post, Glad You Dead You Rascal You, was based on the song You Rascal You made popular by the great  Louis Armstrong in the early 1030’s.  Here ‘s a Betty Boop cartoon from 1932 that features the song in  an interesting mix of cartoon and live action with Armstrong and his band.  Hard to believe this is from before my dad was born on this day back in 1933.  Happy birthday to my old man.

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GC Myers- Geometry of the HeartIt was Opening Day for Major League Baseball the other day, which is always  a red letter day for me.  It’s sort of like 2013 has officially began, that my day to day life now has something with which to synchronize, something to fall in rhythm with.  So, even though I have been feeling under the weather for several days,  I was able to complete a new piece, one that had been banging around in my head for a long time.  It incorporated the perfect geometry of the baseball diamond nestled among a tightly clustered neighborhood of Red Roofs.  It’s an odd piece, one that feels both typical and atypical at once.  That’s a quality that I like.

ralph_fasanella_sandlot_baseball_1373_356I have been wanting to incorporate the baseball diamond into one of my landscapes, perhaps influenced by some of the folk art paintings that did it so well.  I have featured some of these here, such as Malcah Zeldis’ Homage to Hank Greenberg, shown at the bottom of this page or Ralph Fasanella’s Sandlot Baseball,  shown here on the left.  These are paintings I like very much as much for the baseball aspect as for the wonderful folk art manner in which they are painted.  There is something in the sight of a diamond that has a hypnotic effect on me, something I hoped to capture in a painting.

I always remember the feeling when I was a kid and we went to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play, especially for night games.  You would head out from the dim light of the concourse and emerge into the brightness of the field lights.  The green of the field was so vibrant, the brownish red of the infield dirt so rich.  There was something perfect in looking down on that diamond, a design that made so much sense to a child’s mind.  A beautiful geometry, one that equalizes weaknesses and strengths.  The length of the basepaths, for example, are such that  on a hard hit  ball to the infield a fast runner can be easily thrown out at first but a slower runner can often beat out a soft groundball.

Here, a small man could easily conquer a much larger man from a distance of 60′ 6 “, the distance from homeplate to the pitching rubber.   Skill overcomes pure strength, size and athleticism.  If you ever saw Michael Jordan flailing helplessly at minor league curveballs, you’ll know what I mean.

I could write a lot more here.  And I probably should.  But I simply want to show this new piece, a 20″ by 24″ that I’m calling Geometry of the Heart.  Here, the ball park, a Little League sort of field, represents the heart of the neighborhood, the openness of the field stands in direct contrast with the cramped houses.  This is a painting that I have really enjoyed painting, one that is probably more for myself than for anyone else but one that I needed to paint.


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I had a good trip down to Alexandria yesterday, a fast down and back jaunt with a pleasant, as always, visit with my friends there.  It’s always great to spend a little time with the folks there– Michele, Clint, Julia and Chris.  Oh, and my dog, Asher, who wants to play fetch from the minute you enter the gallery to the minute you leave.  He pretends to be Clint’s dog but I know that he’s really mine.  But since Clint wouldn’t part with him for the world and takes great care of him, I guess that’s okay.  Thanks for making me feel at home there, guys.

Sartenada -klaukkala_tsasouna_finland I was going to write about the trip a bit more but I was looking at a photo blog that I read on a semi-regular basis, Sartenada’s Photo Blog.   He is a retired pilot and amateur photographer   who travels around his native Finland and Europe snapping photos of some interesting subjects.  I particularly  like his photos of the rustic wooden churches in Finland, such as the one shown here on the left,  that are so beautifully designed.

Sartenada- ahlainen_church_iglesia_eglise_-16A recent post featured a group of folk art sculpture that he had noticed outside several of these churches, near life-size figures of what seemed to be people in great hardship, some missing limbs.  They often have a hand out as though asking for help.  It turns out that these are Poor Man Statues which are really just large and elaborate poor boxes.  There are slots in the sculptures to insert money that will be passed on to the needy of the church and the community.

Sartenada -pomarkku_church_iglesia_eglise_-19I was really taken by these statues which reminded me so much of some of the great folk art sculpture of the past  here in the States.Some are really expressive such as this one on the left. His face has deep creases in his weathered face  and, as Sartenada implies, may be based on an actual member of the church or community.  I think these are just wonderful and wanted to pass them on.  I’m pleased to see these surviving and hope that they will be preserved.

Again, you can see more of these at Sartenada’s Photo Blog.   It’s worth a visit if only for the statues and the beautiful rural churches of Finland.Sartenada-- historic_wooden_poor_man_statue_in_kuortaneSartenada - siipyy_church_iglesia_eglise_-4

Sartenada- pomarkku_church_iglesia_eglise_-18

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Holy Family-  American Folk Art MuseumI wasn’t going to write anything today but I opened a book that I have featuring works from the American Folk Art Museum, one that I browse on a regular basis.  The page I turned to is near the middle of the book, a page that I always seem to turn to when I open the book,  showing a carved piece, Holy Family,  that I  just love.  It is attributed to the 19th century  woodcarver John Philip Yaeger, a German born craftsman who worked in the Baltimore area.  I’m not religious in any traditional sense of the word but I thought this would be a fitting image to show today, which is Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.

There’s something irresistibleabout this carving,  beyond the subject matter,  that I just can’t put my finger on.  The color of its patina is beautifully golden and warm. The lines are smooth and rhythmic.  There’s a wonderful balance of fineness and roughness in the way the pieces of wood that make up the sculpture are put together.  It has a modern feel yet seems old– a timeless quality.  Everything about it has that sense of rightness that I have tried to describe here without much success in the past.

I also am intrigued but he damage on the left shoulder of the father.  I don’t know if this is just a property of the wood after these many years but it looks like it may have been near a cat who saw this as a perfect scratching post.  But even that doesn’t lessen the power of the piece.  It fits right into the wholeness of it.  Imperfectly perfect.

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Chester Cornett  CrucifixChester Cornett  CrucifixI came across an image of a hand-carved crucifix that caught my eye.  it had rough craved ribs and was painted in a haphazard fashion and adorned with human hair.  The photo made it look small and intimate but it was huge, about eight  feet tall and four feet wide.  It would be a truly dynamic thing to see.  I knew nothing of its maker,  Chester Cornett.  This wild expression, while effecting in its presence,  didn’t give me any real idea of the story behind the name or of the nature of his true special talent.

You see, Chester Cornett was born and raised as a traditional chairmaker from the hills of Kentucky, learning at the knees of his grandfather and father.  He was born in 1912 and died in 1981, living a life filled with hardship as the  world surged progressively into the modern era,  moving further and further away from the need for the handmade.  But Chester persisted, perhaps because he knew no other way or because his special talent, his genius, was too great to forsake.

Chester Cornett Rocing Chair BookcaseHe made all sorts of chairs, simply built traditional chairs and rockers.  But it was when he moved beyond that form that his genius manifested itself.  Folding chairs with eight legs.  Rocking chairs with bookcases built around them.  They were masterfully crafted with innovative joinery and intricate engineering.  Just amazing creations.

I’m just learning about Chester Cornett so I’m not going into much depth here.  There’s not a wealth of info out there outside of a film, Handcarved, from 1981, and a book that features him among other mountain craftsmen, Craftsmen of the Cumberlands.  But I find his work and his life captivating.  There’s something special in seeing ingenuity show itself in unlikely places and conditions.  And Cornett seems to me an unlikely genius that deserves greater examination.

I like this exchange from the book, Craftsmen of the Cumberlands:

Chester Cornett Snake Chair“Do you think it takes a special talent to be a chairmaker?” I asked Chester. 

“I don’t b’lieve so,” he said. 

“You think anybody could be a chairmaker?” 

“No, I don’t b’lieve just anybody could… too hard a work.” 

“Does it take some special skill?” 

“Yes sir, it does. It takes a skill specially for, uh, you got to learn how to use that drawin’ knife—use it just right to take off hick’ry bark with or whatever you’re making.” (Though other chairmakers used a drawing knife much less frequently and for fewer tasks than Chester did.) 

“Can anyone learn how to use a drawing knife?” 

“I’d say so, excepting uh, you got to learn to get interested in anything to learn it… you have to learn to get interested in a thing like that before you could learn it. And anyway, I b’lieve anyone could learn how to use a drawin’ knife and do that work.” 

“Anybody could learn how to be a chairmaker, then?” 

“Well, yes, they could, but they’d have to learn to be interested in that first.”

Maybe that’s the whole point of life– finding that thing that we can learn to be interested in.

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Morris Hirshfield TigerThere are so many artists out there, both now and from the past,  that I’m not surprised when I come across an artist with which I am not familiar whose work knocks  me out.  But sometimes I come across work that is so strong and consistent in its vision that I just can’t understand why the name is not known to me.  That’ happened recently when I was browsing through a book on the collection of the American Folk Art Museum and came across the name Morris Hirshfield.  The name didn’t ring a bell but the work was so wonderful.   It had a naive feel in the rendering of the figures but there was a sophistication in the composition and coloring that made me feel that it was anything but folk.

I definitely had to find out more about Morris Hirshfield.

Morris Hirshfield Angora CatBut there’s little to learn about the man.   Not a lot is written, only a few mentions in books. That surprised me.  But his story is pretty simple.

He was born in Poland in 1872 and came to America around 1890 at the age of 18.  Like many many of the Jewish immigrants of that time who settled in the New York area he began working in the garment industry.  With his brother, he opened a coat factory that evolved into a slipper factory which was very successful.  Morris  encountered health problems and retired in 1935, at which point he took up painting, following up on an artistic urge he had as a child but had put aside long ago.

Morris Hirshfield Girl With PigeonsWithin four short years, his work had attracted the attention of collector and art dealer Sidney Janis, who used two of Hirshfield’s paintings for an exhibit he was putting together in 1939 for the Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Unknown American Painters.  MoMA , at that time, was committed to collecting and showing the work of self-taught artists.  In 1941, MoMA purchased two of Hirshfield’s paintings for its collection and in 1943 gave  Hirshfield a solo show.  He had only painted 30 pieces up to that point in his career.   There was great controversy over the show at the time as the critics of the era savaged it.  It was, according to Janis’s biographer,  “one of the most hated shows the Museum of Modern Art ever put on.”  It led to the dismissal of the museum director at the time.

Morris Hirshfield Dogs and PupsBut Hirshfield survived and painted his paintings of animals and the occasional figure for a few more years until his death in 1946.  His career spanned a mere 9 years over which he produced only 77 paintings.

I don’t really understand the controversy of the time or why Hirshfield hasn’t inspired more  writers or artists.  Or maybe he has and I just can’t find  much evidence of it. When I clicked on the Google image page for him, I was immediately smitten.  There was that sense of rightness that I often speak of here.  Just plain good stuff.  Just wish Morris Hirshfield had been around longer so there might be more to see.

Morris Hirshfield Beach GirlMorris Hirshfield Baby Elephant With Boy 1943Morris Hirshfield Lion 1939Morris Hirshfield Zebras




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