Ask anyone about their favorite American folk artist and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Since the artists were often minimally trained (if at all), their histories are tricky to trace. Folk art is steeped in mystery but also—thanks to its domestic subject matter and jones for portraiture—intensely personal. With 100 pieces on display, Cincinnati Art Museum’s new exhibit, A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, is the largest collection of such art in museum’s history.
Maybe the single most interesting thing about folk art is its range of subjects and media. “Visitors will see and understand the diverse forms that folk art can take, from endearing family portraits and whirligig yard ornaments to brightly painted furniture and incredible quilts and needlework,” says Cincinnati Art Museum Curator Amy Dehan.
Look for a “fraktur” book: a collection German inspired watercolor drawings, which signified an important event in someone’s life. This work is attributed to an unidentified “Record Book Artist” from Winchester, West Virginia.
This book was created to trace the Laing family history, starting with their emigration from Scotland to Maryland around 1785. The book is in English (Most were in German) and documents their family of nine children. Various symbols present events such as birth and baptism. A coffin or fallen rose is associated with death.
The exhibit also features many portraits. They’re a common sight in the genre, and you’ll find that many are children. These paintings are an unsettling account of short lifespans, as a good amount of these children had already passed by the time of the artist coming in to do the portrait. “Until 1840, they did not have photography,” explained Barbara Gordon, who currently serves on the board of the American Folk Art Museum in NYC and who donated 60 personal pieces to the exhibit. “And these itinerate artists would be called to a house. The baby would be dead and lying there, and this would be the only way to paint the baby—before they buried the child.”
Beyond these nostalgic records, utility and practicality were the order of the day—dressers, commercial sculptures, textiles, and other such household items fill the exhibit.
This collection gives viewers a rare opportunity to familiarize themselves with a little-known part of American art history.
Thru September 3, cincinnatiartmuseum.org