Personal Recollections: Collecting Folk Art in Virginia

Personal Recollections: Collecting Folk Art in Virginia

Article by  Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass 

Personal Recollections: Collecting Folk Art in Virginia, an exhibition opening October 6 at the Meadow Farm Museum in Glen Allen, Va., will consider the collectors and their relationship to their collections. Three items each have been selected from most of the 28 lenders, and each group of objects will be accompanied by an instructive wall panel quoting the collector’s views.

The lenders to the show are members of the Folk Art Society of America from Virginia, including four museums: Meadow Farm Museum, Anderson Gallery of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg. Unfortunately, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond refused to lend its one folk art painting, a memory scene by Lynchburg, Va., folk artist Queena Dillard Stovall.

“Social interaction is the wellspring of art; it is its fundamental impulse,” said John Freimarck at his pottery studio in Manquin, Va. This remark came at the end of a lively word-portrait of Steve Ashby (1904-1980), a folk artist who lived in Delaplane, in Northern Virginia. After Ashby’s wife died, the artist dressed life-size figures with her clothes (the outfit being complete from the panties to the outside layers, according to Freimarck), which he would prop up in his front yard. Not surprisingly, startled by these ghostly apparitions, neighbors would stop to strike up conversations with the artist.

Concrete Woman, Ashby’s sculpture selected for the show, was also once offered for the view of passersby. The sculpture was hanging from a tree when Freimarck bought it in 1974. Quite different from Ashby’s usual dressed-up, wooden female characters, it is his only sculpture made of concrete. In fact, the figure’s classical stance embedded in such a thoroughly mundane medium is quite arresting.

For some lenders to this exhibition, collecting folk art has become a way of life. Peter Cecere, from Woodville, is an obsessive collector. His house barely contains the 12,000 works of folk art he gathered during years of foreign service for the United States Information Agency in Spain and Mexico, as well as during many trips to Ecuador, Bolivia and Uruguay.

“I’ve always been a collector,” Cecere recently said in an interview published in The Washington Post. “The epiphany was Bolivia, when I walked into a craft fair. I was absolutely floored by the folk art there. Now, of course, I wouldn’t have any of it in the house — it was pretty bad. But enthusiasm has nothing to do with taste. When you first start, you are more into what I would call airport art.”

Striking about Cecere’s collection is not only its ownership of his house but also the humor underlying the display. A flock of sheep gathered on three shelves is wittily interspersed with tigers, such as the one in the exhibition. In addition, mass-produced gadgets placed here and there seem to denounce the excessiveness of the whole ensemble. However, Cecere’s seriousness is revealed in the meticulousness with which he has catalogued his collection.

The youngest lender is Cassie Womack from Richmond. She agreed to lend Maple Syrup, Highland County, Monterey, Va. by “Uncle Jack” Dey (1912-1978), who lived in Richmond, with the understanding that she can visit her painting as often as she wishes. She is quite attached to this work because, for the four-year-old, it is the springboard to many bedtime stories. Cassie is assiduously following in the footsteps of her parents, Catherine Roseberry and Rob Womack, whose collection includes many works by Anderson Johnson (1915-1998), S.L. Jones (1901-1997) and Abraham Lincoln Criss (1914-2000), as well as Rocking Mary by Sam Doyle (1906-1985), never before shown to the public.

Rocking Mary was literally the marker of the beginning of a new life for Womack and Roseberry: They bought it from the artist on their honeymoon to St. Helena Island in 1983. While many newlyweds discuss china patterns, they were given the choice between killed slaves, prostitutes, embalmers, bus drivers and other local St. Helena Island personalities commemorated in paintings by Sam Doyle. In the end, the couple was won over by Doyle’s description of Rocking Mary as “a woman with a walk,” a description he discreetly whispered into Womack’s ear, for he knew they were on their honeymoon.

Humor is certainly present in Jaws, a 1978 sculpture by Miles B. Carpenter (1889-1985) from Waverly, Va., recently donated to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts by Richard Gonet of Ashland, Va. Johnson Bowles, director and curator of the collections at the center, said, “Jaws is a quintessential Miles Carpenter work in its materials, humor and social commentary. Although the work is called Jaws, a more apt title is Jaws 2 for its uncanny caricature of the 1978 [movie] sequel to Jaws, Jaws 2. In fact, the sculpture looks exactly like the scene on the movie poster. The shark is shown rising out of the water, mouth wide open, ready to eat the unsuspecting bikini-clad water skier. Instead of being frightening, Carpenter’s version is silly. As the female figure raises her arms and opens her mouth, she looks more like Betty Boop or Saturday Night Live‘s Mr. Bill than someone about to be eaten alive.”

Allison Vogler developed a taste for folk art while she was still a student at the University of Richmond. She went with her art history classmates on a field trip to visit Miles Carpenter and spent her graduation money to buy several remarkable pieces of folk art, such as Carpenter’s Girl Giving the Dog a Bone and The Dog Heaven by Howard Finster.

Mary Helen and John Gits Married is another example of how personal some folk art pieces in the exhibition are. When Mary Helen Frederick’s siblings were married, she commissioned special “bride-and-groom” pieces from James Harold Jennings (1931-1999), from Pinnacle, N.C., for them. In turn, two months before Mary Helen’s own wedding, her mother, Ann Oppenhimer, asked Jennings to make a bride and groom for her daughter and future son-in-law, John Willett. When Jennings suddenly died in April 1999, a month short of the wedding, Oppenhimer thought that Jennings would not have had time to complete the commission. Finally, it came in the mail, two weeks after the artist’s death. It had been mailed by Normie Jennings, the artist’s sister-in-law who had handled his business for the few last years of his life. The bride was touched to get a work by an artist she had discovered in 1985 and thus to continue a family tradition.

One of the folk art sculptures in the exhibition is now so intrinsically linked to its current owner that it has become part of its public image. Ram, a limestone sculpture created by Tennessee artist William Edmondson (1870?-1951) around 1945, was bought in 1974 by the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University as part of a gift made by a former VCU president, Dr. Henry Hibbs. Subsequently, the ram became the symbol for the VCU athletics program. The sculpture is usually on display at the office of the president at VCU and travels rarely. The Anderson Gallery exhibited it in 1998 in a selection from the gallery’s permanent collection.

From friendship to wedding to honeymoon to team symbol, many folk art works in this exhibition are witnesses to personal wanderings and relationships. Roseberry and Womack, for example, have met 95 percent of the artists represented in their collection. This is true for most of the other lenders to the exhibition.

If confronted by the appellation “collectors,” these lenders are quick to add that what they enjoy most is meeting the artists. Virginia is a great state in which to encounter folk artists; 12 out of the 47 artists represented in the exhibition live or were living in Virginia.

For example, those who have attended a religious service orchestrated by Anderson Johnson at his Newport News Faith Mission have reported that it was an unforgettable experience. Stepping into Robert Howell’s Powhatan County environment of animal and human figures gave me the chilly feeling as if I were landing on the moon. These meetings with artists can alter your vision of art and ultimately your life if you are able to allow the unexpected to occur.

At worst, meeting a folk artist can be challenging; at best, it is cathartic because of what it reveals to the visitor of himself. The folk art objects brought back from such encounters become the repositories of strong personal memories. They even can be markers of decisive moments in the lives of the collectors. When you visit the exhibition, I hope you will get a sense of the intersecting individual histories of the artists and the collectors.

Personal Recollections: Collecting Folk Art in Virginia, which will run through December 31, is a tribute to Virginian folk art collectors and also to David Levinson, a director of the Folk Art Society of America, who died on March 19, 2001.

[This article will appear in slightly different form in the catalogue for the Meadow Farm Museum exhibition.]

EMMANUELLE DELMAS-GLASS, from Guilford, Conn., works for the Yale Center of British Art.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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