A happy accident resulted in Felipe Benito Archuleta’s (1910–1991) magnificent Tiger, Tesuque, New Mexico wood carving greeting visitors to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville’s latest exhibition in this, the year of the tiger on the Chinese calendar. “American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection,” was opened to the public on February 11 and remains on view through May 22, 2022.
The exhibition has been organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, with support provided by Art Bridges. Over 80 American folk art objects are on view including paintings, pottery and sculpture, as well as a variety of textile works.
Each piece has a story. Many remarkable. Each artist a unique “American Perspective” to share.
There’s Eugene Andolsek (1921-2008), a longtime stenographer for the Rock Island Railroad who created astonishingly intricate India ink drawings on graph paper as a therapy from his stressful job which put him in constant fear of being fired.
Calvin Black (1903-1972) and his wife Ruby Black (1915-1980) who were from the South, met while Calvin was working with the circus, moved to California and opened a tourist stop in the Mojave Desert on their property they called “Possum Trot.”
Elizabeth Layton (1909-1993), a Kansas homemaker suffering from bipolar disorder and deep depression.
Ellen Ogden (1795-1870) who created an extraordinary watercolor and ink on silk painting at 12-years-old representing herself as the only survivor among the graves of her six siblings.
Confederate prisoner of war John Jacob Omenhausser (1832-1877).
Jessie B. Telfair (1913-1986) whose Freedom Quilt (1983) was a later response to losing her job as a cook at a public school in Georgia in 1963 after registering to vote.
Charles Carmel (1865-1931) a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who relocated to Brooklyn. His dream was to open a carousel on Cooney Island. The day before it was due to open, a fire destroyed it. One of his exquisite wood carved and painted carousel horses which survived the blaze is shared.
Men, women, immigrants. The formerly enslaved, white, Black. Persons with disabilities. Christians, Jews, Quakers. Artists all, hailing from in New York and New England, the South, Midwest and West. The earliest object on view was made in the 1740s. The most recent 2013. Some are radical. Some conservative.
“The show’s intent of trying to focus on individual stories, and elevating individual stories, and how that degree of diversity is what makes America America is ripe right now,” Holly Keris, the J. Wayne & Delores Barr Weaver Chief Curator, told me on my visit to see the exhibition.
Aficionados of American folk art will recognize many major figures with work in the show: Edward Hicks, Grandma Moses, Joseph Yoakum, David Drake, Nellie Mae Rowe, Clementine Hunter, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Henry Darger. I have written previously about Yoakum and Rowe.
To Kerris, however, the power of the exhibition expands beyond its survey of the genre.
“If you’re into folk art names, there’s some of the things that you’d expect, but for me, it really is about focusing on the message that you don’t have to be the person in the history book to have a valid perspective, and how can we get accustomed to not only telling our own point of view, but listening to someone else’s who may be different from ours,” she said.
Artworks on view also provide historical insight on the nation. American perspectives. Art is the people’s history, told from the unfiltered perspective of those who experienced it firsthand, often those who suffered and were omitted from the popular retelling.
“All art is contemporary in its own time, so no matter what someone is making, they’re responding to what is happening around them, and (we) can use that as a vehicle to tap into the nucleus of what that moment was really about – what people were really concerned about or what people prioritized,” Keris explains.
The broad spectrum of artists, time, geography, subject matter and medium additionally reinforce humanity’s universal need to create.
“These are not people who are getting paid for this. This is not a profession. No one is saying, ‘I want you to do this and I need it by next Friday,’” Keris reminds. “These are things they are doing in their own time because they feel compelled to create and express. It’s not about likes, it’s not about shares, it’s not about money or promotion or social status. These are people who just needed to get it out. How beautifully authentic.”