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Fig. 1: Angel. William Edmondson (1874–1951), Nashville, Tennessee, 1932–1940. Limestone. H. 181/2, W. 13, D. 51/2 in.

Scholarship, the marketplace, and maturing tastes have all served to broaden the definitions of American folk sculpture, making clear the need to reevaluate this art category in the twenty-first century. In American Vernacular: New Discoveries in American Folk, Self-Taught and Outsider Sculpture, authors Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco present 425 never-before-published works in company with a series of discussions that attempt to define the wider parameters of American folk sculpture today. One in a series of contributions that the Ricco/Maresca Gallery owners have made to the bibliography on American folk art, this, their sixth book, revisits and expands on their first volume, American Primitive, published in 1988.

Ricco and Maresca define American folk sculpture by the following three categories: traditional folk art, self-taught, and outsider art. Traditional nineteenth-century objects transcend their function; self-taught objects were created, usually in the twentieth century, for their own sake with no intended utilitarian function; and outsider art objects are those, usually made in the twentieth century, that were created by individuals whose circumstances precluded them from participating within mainstream culture. Having established their criteria, the authors divide the book into nine subject areas codifying American folk sculpture in terms of subject matter (Animals and Decoys, Carnival and Circus Figures, Figures and Faces, Weathervanes and Whirligigs), symbolism (Religion and Symbolism), uses (Canes, Utilitarian, Trade Stimulators), and creators (Self-Taught and Outsider Art). Each chapter also explores these categories for their cultural significance and their symbolic meaning within the broader context of American art.

Fig. 2: Woman Holding Celestial Globe Aloft, unidentified maker, ca. 1920–1930, found in New England. Pine with polychrome paint. H. 37, W. 8, D. 6 in.

Several of the objects featured fit into more than one category, as is the case with the carved limestone Angel made by William Edmondson (1874–1951) between 1932 and 1940 (Fig. 1). Edmondson was a self-taught African-American artist from Nashville, Tennessee, whose religious visions resulted in his fantastical figures—angels, animals, and people—in limestone. Thus his work fits within three areas of American folk sculpture as defined by Ricco and Maresca: it is self-taught, it is the product of Edmondson’s religious beliefs, and it also portrays the human form. “He has proven to be a sculptor who should be judged on quality and artistic merit rather than automatically placed within a stratified aesthetic system,” says Frank Maresca. Edmondson has in fact been the subject of academic interest since 1937, and is one of the few self-taught American artists acknowledged as important in a fine art context during his own lifetime.

The figure of Woman Holding Celestial Globe Aloft (Fig. 2) appears in the Carnival section of the book though, as with Angel, she operates on many dimensions, including self-taught and figural. She is strangely religious yet secular in her stance. Is she holding a star painted orb above her head as an offering or an object of worship, or is she tossing a beach ball to an unseen partner? Regardless of the meaning of her action, she does not appear to be sensible to the ball in her hands but seems focused outside of herself. Among the interpretive possibilities is the manner in which she embodies the conflicting ways women can be seen. Both goddess and human, she is at once an image of sanctity and frivolity. This figure is emblematic of a number of the sculptures illustrating carnival and circus figures in as much as she can be seen to represent duality; the idea that any entity can contain its opposite.

Fig. 3: Whale and Captain Weathervane, unidentified maker, Westport, Massachusetts, 1840–1850. Supposedly made for the home of Captain Peleg Cornell, Westport, Massachusetts. Wood, copper, wrought iron, traces of black paint. H. 104, W. 55, D. 28 in.

Weathervanes are one of the most popular types of folk-art objects among present-day collectors. Whether factory made or the product of an individual, their artistic merit often transcends their original function. One such example is the Whale and Captain Weathervane made for Captain Peleg Cornell of Westport, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century (Fig. 3). Made of wood, copper, and wrought iron with traces of black paint, a massive sperm whale (104 inches high, 55 inches wide, and 28 inches deep), with mouth open and teeth displayed, is joined by a turned representation of a telescope—the technology of the whale’s undoing—to a small sheet copper figure of the whaling captain who hunts him. Above the whale’s tail is an empty long boat.

The maker of this weathervane embedded numerous signifiers into the object. Most simplistically, the weathervane demonstrates the manner in which Captain Cornell earned his presumed fortune. Just as importantly, it communicates Cornell’s bravery in undertaking such dangerous work. The image of the whale and the captain also embodies the notion of conflict prevalent in American literature dating back to Puritan New England—the issue of man versus nature. Emphasizing the significance of personalized sculptures such as this weathervane, Maresca notes, “I think a lot of importance is placed on factory weathervanes…but this is one person’s interpretation. It’s unique; a particularly beautiful and thought-out instrument of the wind.”

Fig. 4: Dove, unidentified maker, Kansas, Late 19th century. Wood with polychrome paint. H. 161/4, W. 241/2, D. 23/8 in.

Equally successful in terms of its form, energy, and artistic merit, is the painted wood figure Dove by an unidentified maker in late-nineteenth-century Kansas. It is one of several forms in the book defining folk, self-taught and outsider Animals and Decoys (Fig. 4). This carving was originally a decoration on a granary, and as such arguably fits with the utilitarian section of the book as well. Simple and restricted in dimension, nonetheless, Dove captures the essence and the significant features of a bird—wings outstretched in flight and moving forward. Iconographically, there is no misundesrstanding the bird as such. On a technical level, the form of the bird is a lesson in depicting a body in motion through shape and direction. A distillation of essential form, Dove functions aesthetically as an abstraction of joined parts to create a unified artwork much in the manner of twentieth-century minimalism.

Fig. 5: Topsy-Turvy Doll, unidentified maker, United States, late 19th–early 20th century. Wood and
fabric with black and white paint. H.16, W. 5, D. 3 in.
Where art in the mainstream tradition often functions as agent provocateur, exposing to a culture its uncomfortable elements, many of the sculpture forms illustrated in American Vernacular are equally complicit. Among these is the painted turned wood and fabric Topsy-Turvy Doll by an unidentified maker, made sometime between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Fig. 5). At only six inches high, the double doll represents duality in its identically rendered form: A white human figure and its black counterpart. Absent its costume, the full impact of the toy is difficult to ascertain and can only be guessed at now. Regardless of which end is up, both faces are equally smiling and happy.

“Today we have Barbie and many other dolls that are racially representative,” says Maresca, “but here was a doll that a child could play with—flipped one way it was a white doll, and flipped the other way it was a black doll. Though probably used in a hierarchical manner associated with the time, this toy now appears democratic because both sides appear equal.”

American Vernacular is an important contribution to our current understanding not just of American folk sculpture, but to American art in general. The sculptural forms presented here put on record the historical identity of American folk, self-taught, and outsider art, and how we understand it today. Whether these definitions will hold true in the future remains to be seen. Regardless of that outcome, the authors’ analysis serves to define and articulate our expanded notions of traditional folk art.

American Vernacular: New Discoveries in American Folk, Self-Taught and Outsider Sculpture by Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, with contributions by Margit Rowell, independent curator, formerly with the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Joseph Jacobs, Chief Curator of American Art at the Newark Museum of Art; and Lyle Rexer. Published by Bulfinch/Little Brown & Co., it will be available fall 2002.

Susan D. Kleckner is an Americana consultant, writer, appraiser, and broker in Westchester County, New York.

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