On the Trail of the Past
Maine Museums Show Off Stuff
Fetched From Their Basements
By Edward Shanahan
The waning days of summer prompted a getaway trip out of town where among other activities we hopped aboard something called the Maine Folk Art Trail.
We had been alerted to its existence by articles in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and happily so.
While our schedule and Labor Day holiday did not allow us to make stops at all 11 of the museums participating in the folk art displays, we managed visits to five, the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, the Colby College Museum in Waterville, Bates College’s Olin Arts Center in Lewiston, and the surprisingly wide-ranging historically deep Maine State Museum in Augusta.
As the literature at the Augusta museum notes, folk art is essentially the work of “self-taught makers who created varied objects … and (through them) have expressed their observations, inspirations, enterprising spirit and humor.” It is also referred to as vernacular art, imaginative or whimsical passions rendered in various easily available media such as rope, wood, paper, metal, ink, paint, textiles, and scrimshaw . And, indeed, much of the art we encountered revealed a refreshing sense of humor in the works of these amateur artists whose lives were not easy in the harsh world where life was fragile and often very short.
Among the items catching my attention at the Bates stop were those produced by 18th century homemakers whose hand-made 200-year old document boxes contained fascinating memorabilia including meticulously detailed birth certificates, family histories, including obituaries —one of the most moving was for a pair of twins who were born and died the same day—as well as colorfully illustrated and artfully designed paperwork.
The cursive writing and calligraphy skills of our ancestors are amazing in this day and age of scribble and illegibility.
The Maritime Museum offers splendid examples of how the sailors fought tedium brought on by the hours, days, weeks and months aboard ship by the patient producing knotwork, both common and never before imagined, or the confounding carving of scenes, symbols and stories on scrimshaw., and delicately precise wooden models of their sailing ships.
Each museum offered up its own special folk art specialties, drawn from its collection, which in many cases had been kept in storage for years. At the Farnsworth, the work of early primitive painters, including Grandma Moses, as well as portrait painters were highlighted, a 50-foot painted town panorama stretched along three gallery walls. There were fanciful textile offerings and colorful quilts, weathervanes and crowing roosters.
The state museum concentrated on aspects of the rugged Maine experience with examples of blanket chests, a child’s sled and pair of skates, a painted tin-plated trunk, a spruce gum box for storage and chewing as the spirit moved, and a drawing on sand paper.
The reach of the artists was limited only by the materials that were available at the time, but what inventive artists these were.
Behind the idea of the trail event was one Charles Burden of Richmond, Maine, himself a collector of antique nautical items. With rare organizational effort and adequate funding, the museums, acting in concert and with timeliness, have been able to offer a singular summer-long art experience. By joining forces, and by unearthing some of their most unique possessions, the participating museums in the Maine Folk Arts Trail project can claim to have made a valuable contribution to our deeper understanding and appreciation of the Maine experience and the surprisingly creative lives of many of the early Mainers.
A secondary pleasure of hitting the Maine trail is that at each of the museums we are able to view other important aspects of their collection like a personal favorite of mine—the room of John Marin watercolors at the Colby Museum— or the collection of art, sculpture and theater design by Louise Nevelson, who grew up in Rockland, at the Farnsworth, and the art and contributions to both the Colby Museum and the Farnsworth of Alex Katz, an artist with whom we were totally unfamiliar, and his foundation which has committed both money and art to several of Maine’s museums. The Maine State is worth several return visits to absorb the rugged span of Maine history and its early development of the logging, fishing, shipbuilding and quarrying industries.
Maine State Museum, Augusta
All in all, it was an eye-opener of a journey and museum experience. It will continue until at least the end of September and some museums will keep their material on view even longer. So if you are interested click on www.mainfolkarttrail.org
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