We know American folk art mainly from the great East Coast collections- the ones at Colonial Williamsburg and at Shelburne, Vermont —and from several landmark exhibits at New York City’s Whitney Museum. And certain often-seen pieces have become old friends to those who are won by the offhand grace and spirited coloring of works embedded in the American grain.
That there is more to be found—much of it never publicly exhibited—was recently revealed in a show mounted by the Cincinnati Art Museum titled “The Fine Art of Folk Art.” According to the museum’s curator of decorative arts, Anita Ellis, the idea for an exhibit featuring the holdings of Ohio’s folk art collectors first occurred to her about five years ago. The plan was to present only North American works and, as much as practicable, to keep to those of Mid-western origin. Ellis joined with the museum’s curators of painting, costumes and textiles, and works on paper to canvass local collectors, most of them members of the Ohio Folk Art Association, a group founded in 1981. (Folk art collecting in Ohio goes back to the 1920s.) The curators visited about twenty-five owners, sifted through hundreds of pieces, and sent out word of their quest to Ohio antiques dealers. The curators’ approach, says Ellis, wasn’t anthropological or historic, but aesthetic. They didn’t go for just the big names—although many were among the pickings—but made their judgments purely on the basis of quality.
The exhibit itself, which runs until September 2, presents a choice selection of seventy-five items, including paintings, samplers, sculpture, and furniture. The oldest piece on display is an illustrated handwritten book specifying weights and measures, which dates back to 1766. Contemporary artists, such as Edward M. Hageman, an eighty-year-old carver enjoying his first show, were also represented. “ As soon as these works are published in the accompanying catalogue,” says Ellis, “we’re going to make some discoveries.”
The curators are especially eager to learn more about an early-twentieth-century painter who signed his work L. A. Roberts and who so far is known only for the two bold landscapes that appear in the exhibit. (One of them, Yosemite Valley , is seen here.) Roberts probably lived in Cincinnati, and it is known that an elderly couple there gave the two paintings to a physician in the 1930s in lieu of payment. Yet it’s not likely, says Anita Ellis, that these “were Roberts’s first and last shot.” Indeed, since research on the artist was launched during the mounting of the show, word Of a possible third painting has surfaced, just as the Ohio curators had hoped.