Posts Tagged ‘American Folk Art’

I am preparing for my first experience as a teacher when I lead a two-day workshop next month.  I’ve been thinking what I want to say to the people who come to it.  And what I don’t want to tell them.  Mainly, I want to stay away from telling them that they should or must do something in any one way.  I will show them my process and my techniques but will stay away from all subjective judgments.   While I might like to see them render something in one way, their work should be their own creations with its own visual vocabulary and style, all based on their own perceptions.

This reminded me of a post from several years ago that addressed just such an issue.  It is one of my favorite stories about the late Ralph Fasanella, the one-time union organizer turned urban folk painter.  His enthusiasm for maintaining his personal vision is something I hope to impart to the folks who might be attending the workshop.  From back in 2011:

Ralph Fasanella- Stickball

Ralph Fasanella- Stickball

I came into the studio this morning and immediately sat down to read my emails.  Among them was the most recent post from  AmericanFolk Art@ Cooperstown titled Ralph’s Take On Rembrandt.  It concerned the late and great American folk artist Ralph Fasanella and his reaction to criticism and unsolicited advice.  I finished reading and burst out laughing.  Boy, did it hit close to home!

Over the years, I have been approached by several people who think they are doing me a great service by telling me that I should change the way I paint in some way or that I should try to paint more like some other artist.  Early on, when I was first exhibiting my work, I had another more established artist tell me that I should change the way I paint my figures, that they should look the way other artists paint them.  I responded to this artist and the others who offered me their advice with a smile and an “I’ll look into that.”  But  that one time,  I also mistakenly heeded the older painter’s words, being inexperienced and seeking a way as I was, and stopped painting figures for a while before realizing that this was not good advice at all.

Here’s the post about Fasanella and his response to such advice.

Ralph Fasanella had trouble painting hands. A lot of trained artists do too, so it is not surprising that a union organizer who turned to drawing suddenly at the age of 40 would struggle with hands early in his career. But he did have something that proved better than years of formal training: he believed that he was an artist and that what he was doing – painting the lives of working people – was a calling that deserved his complete attention and all-consuming passion.

And that made him react when anyone suggested that his paintings weren’t up to snuff. He said that he was painting “felt space,” not real space. His people and the urban settings he placed them in were not realistic in the purest sense of the word, but they sang with spirit and emotion. As Ralph said, “I may paint flat, but I don’t think flat.”

Rembrandt- The Jewish Bride (Detail)

Rembrandt- The Jewish Bride (Detail)

His most memorable quote, and the one that says the most about him, occurred very early in his artistic career, when someone told him that his hands looked like sticks. He ought to study Rembrandt’s hands, they said, in order to get it right.  His response is priceless: “Fuck you and Rembrandt! My name is Ralph!”

I may not really adopt Ralph’s approach but you can bet his words will be echoing in my head the next time someone says “You should paint like…”

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Cool Carnival Wheel

I’ve come across a couple of interesting sites, mostly ones that have been linked to the American Folk Art @ Cooperstown site, that highlight folk art finds and curiosities.  Candler Arts is a treasure chest of the neat and obscure as is Anonymous Works which listed this cool Carnival Wheel from the 1930’s that features cartoon characters of the time around the outer edge.  There was probably a  board with corresponding squares for each of the characters where a wager of some sort was made.  If the spinning wheel came to rest on the Dick Tracy or Wimpy that you chose, then you would win.

This is a really interesting piece that has a pop art feel.  I can name quite a few of the characters but there are a few that evade me.  For those who can’t live without a piece of Carnival Americana to hang on their playroom wall, this is still available on ebay even as I write this.

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I saw this the other day on one of my favorite blogsAmerican Folk Art @ Cooperstown, which serves up great American folk art and the stories behind it on a regular basis.   Paul D’Ambrosio, who writes this blog and is an authority on folk art, featured this wonderful protrait from the early 1800’s, probably from eastern New York state where the painter  Ammi Phillips plied his trade. 

Having your portrait painted at that time was the only way that one’s image might ever be recorded and therefore took on a great importance, the sitter wanting to give a full accounting of who they were.  It was not unusual to display evidence of your trade, to show the tools that enabled the sitter to afford the luxury of such a painting.  But I doubt that many went quite as far as this man.

He is obviously a doctor.  Well, at least I hope he’s a doctor because I really wouldn’t be comfortable if I were the man whose eye is being held open if he were, say, a carpenter.  This appears to be a doctor about to perform cataract surgery.  You wouldn’t think so but this surgery, in different forms, has been around since well before the time of Christ, as early as the  6th century BC.  It’s one of those things thqat makes me very thankful for the time in which I live, for all its flaws.

It’s a  portrait that makes you wonder about the lives of the people in it, which I think  makes it a great portrait.  It has an oddball quality as well that transcends mere portraiture.  Just a wonderful and strange piece of Americana.  If you wish to know more about the world of American folk art, check in at the American Folk Art blog.  It is a treasure chest of information and stories,

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Russell Schermer 55 MercedesI wrote in an earlier post about how I might proceed if I lost my ability to see which is the primary sense I use in my work.  I felt I would somehow move on in some form creatively.  I saw this fellow’s work yesterday and knew that  my assertions could be correct.

Above is a 1955 Mercedes made by Russell Schermer out in California.  Russell has been blind since birth and has been a fan of cars since he was a youth.  He has a collection of model cars that he replicates by feeling each detail then transferring it to clay.  The result is recognizable but it’s the wavering from exactitude that I find appealing.  It’s like seeing the car in a parallel universe, where lines and shapes are just not quite right but close enough to allow your mind to translate them fully.

RussellSchermerThere is an interesting sense of rightness in his work.  I get the feeling that I could be a claymation figure and could jump in any of these cars and go down the road as the dimensions of the car and everything around it were constantly shifting just a little bit.  

I think the imperfections in them are perfect expressions.  My hat is off to Russell for his work and for jumping over his obstacles.  Good work.  To see his website, Russell’s Relics, click on any of the cars shown here.  

Russell scherrmer 64 impalaI don’t know if Russell’s work qualifies as folk art but I have a longtime friend, Paul D’Ambrosio, that would know.  Paul has started a new blog, American Folk Art @ CGP, as a vehicle for discussion of folk art.  Paul is vice-president and curator of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA), heading the Fenimore House Museum in Cooperstown.  He also teaches at the Cooperstown Graduate Program for museum studies.  So he knows a little bit about his field which is American folk art.  Anyway, if you’re interested in folk art please check out his blog.  I think you’ll find lots of info.

Russell Schermer

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