A bit of local color

Who painted these lovely, overlooked murals in Rockland ME?
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
Inside the lobby at Rockland’s Ocean State Job Lot—in the northwest corner where they put promoted seasonal merchandise—is a set of murals. There are more in the breakroom, where we never go. These were painted more than 25 years ago, when the building was a Wal-Mart. To Ocean State’s credit, they’ve never been painted over, but they are badly in need of restoration. The fluorescent lighting in the store is pretty awful.
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
The murals are an utterly charming look at Rockport and Camden and their fine flurry of sailing vessels. The American Boat Yard sheds are still standing below Mount Battie. An amazing potpourri of wonderful vessels bobs around the light at Rockland, including schooner Victory Chimes and the US Coast Guard Cutter Thunder Bay. The lobster smack Joseph Pike is tied up at its dock.
At first you think the boats were transcribed from photos, but then you take a good look at them and realize that nothing in these murals are real. Rather, they’re fantastical, as if in a dream. Camden has fewer houses than it would have in a 19th century painting by Fitz Henry Lane.
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
One of the pieces has a clear signature: Ed L. Roberts ’92. An Ocean State employee thought he was someone who worked at the store. A cursory Google search tells me nothing. So, sadly, I know nothing of their provenance. Rather, I’m asking you: who painted these and when? If you have any idea, please comment below.
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
If you’re visiting Rockland, Ocean State Job Lot is probably not on your bucket list. Still, you might want to stop and take a quick gander at this amazing folk art. If you think of it, thank the manager for not painting over them. They’re a charming part of our local history.

Men and women of the waves

Few figureheads survived the harsh environment of the ocean, but those that have give a glimpse of a lively art form, lost today.
Twinned figurehead of SS Great Britain, courtesy Mike Peel
From pre-history, ships have had some form of bow decoration. These may have been apotropaic (meant to ward off harm), intimidating, or simply beautiful, but they’re found everywhere old wrecks are raised. Maori war canoes carried carvings, as did boats of Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. The prows of Viking long ships reared up into dragon’s heads. The Romans honored swans; Greeks used bronze boars; Phoenicians decorated with horses, and Carthaginians used Amun the ram. Ancient Egyptians painted eyes to see across uncharted waters.
Figurehead Hiawatha, charcoal on paper, by Sir William Russell Flint, private collection. The joke’s on that ship-builder; Hiawatha was a man.
It was with the development of the galleon in the 16th century that the figurehead took its modern form. Galleons were large ships with lots of real estate above the waterline. Critically, they have a stem protruding forward in space. That meant there was room to pin a statue (or two) under the bow. At the height of their popularity, figureheads were enormous and extremely heavy.
Figurehead of HMS Black Prince, 1861, named after Edward the Black Prince, victor over the French at Crecy and Poitiers. Imagine seeing that come at you in the English Channel.
The British navy realized fairly quickly that all that weight way up front affected the steering. An outright ban wasn’t feasible, because figureheads were popular. But by the Napoleonic wars, figureheads had been reduced to manageable size. They survived throughout the Age of Sail. Even the fast, light, and economical clipper ships of the 19th century carried them.
Figurehead Lalla Rookh, charcoal on paper, by Sir William Russell Flint, private collection
Figureheads weren’t just female; they covered a wide range of persons, deities, saints and animals. Caryatids, allegorical figures, putti, gods, and warriors were all borrowed from high culture. The carvings were sometimes portraits of the person the boat was named after. But above all, figureheads  represented the interests of their times, often in a lighthearted way.
Eagle figurehead from the USS Lancaster, circa 1880 by carver John Haley Bellamy, courtesy Mariner’s Museum. Any sailor would know instantly that this was an American ship.
The purpose of a figurehead—as with all naval heraldry—was to identify vessels through symbols. Much of the navy during the Age of Sail was illiterate. It was extremely useful for the man on watch to be able to tell whether the boat bearing down on them was friend or foe.
Figure head of the witch Nannie Dee on the clipper ship Cutty Sark. She’s carrying a mare’s tale, and the boat is named after her chemise.
A few efforts were made to attach figureheads to steamships, but the custom didn’t really survive the Age of Sail. Twentieth-century warships needed battering rams at their bows. The curved stem and bowsprit, so useful for hanging sculpture, were obsolete.
Inca warrior figurehead from BAP Union, training ship of the Peruvian navy. Courtesy Gallery of the Ministry of Defense of Peru.
Today, few examples of figureheads remain, as they were constantly subjected to the battering of the sea. And, with few exceptions, the men who carved them remain anonymous. But poke around a maritime museum and you’re bound to find a few examples of this folk art form, sadly lost forever.

The old South and the new

An Alabama folk artist will know he’s made it when his work graces the walls of a Manhattan apartment, even if he doesn’t see much cash from the sale.

An outdoor folk art installation in the woods.

The Confederate Cemetery at Marion is full of Union soldiers who died in hospital here. They outnumber their southern brethren, in fact, with whom they’re buried side-by-side. It was just one of many surprises here in Perry County. This is the second-poorest county in Alabama, which is itself the 47th poorest state in America, but it’s also a proud and beautiful place.

“There’s art in these woods,” our guide, Pastor John Nicholson of Siloam Baptist Church, told us. Sure enough, tacked to the trees were paintings on pieces of old tin roofs. “There used to be lots more,” John lamented. I hope that a gallerist doesn’t discover this open-air gallery any time soon. Then, instead of being free to the citizens of Marion, the art will cost $20 for Manhattanites.
Cypress swamp in Perry County, Alabama.
In the bigger world, money conveys legitimacy. Earnest Williams isn’t making any money by tacking his paintings onto trees. When his paintings sell for six figures and grace the walls of an Upper East Side classic six, he’ll know he’s arrived, although he will probably see very little actual cash from it.
The UN instructs us that Alabama is practically a third-world nation. My husband was in Haiti a few years ago. “Does that look like Haiti?” I asked him as we passed a particularly ramshackle cabin.
“Perhaps like the very best house in Port-au-Prince,” he answered.
Antebellum house in Marion, Alabama.
I do know the slums of Rochester pretty well, and measure for measure, I’d rather be in the woods. New York ranks 15thin America for wealth but right behind the District of Columbia for income inequality. I’ve known plenty of people living in a different kind of squalor. If your neighbor is a snapping turtle or black bear, you’re already wealthier than the family living next to a drug house with a chronic rat problem.
There is a lovely antebellum house mouldering on Marion’s main street. This is not because of poverty, but because of family dynamics; the owners are alive and prospering just around the corner.
Old slave housing in Marion, Alabama.
A sermon or seven could be preached about this house’s fall from grace. Camellias of every variety bloom in its overgrown lawns. Its slave quarters stand as they did in the 19th century, as does its outdoor kitchen. For the first time in years, I’m motivated to paint something overtly instructive. I took many, many photographs. “You’ll just have to come back,” John said.
South of town, the landscape is less woodsy and more prairie. We stopped by a lovely old farmhouse in the middle of pasturage, lakes and ponds. It would be the perfect place for a workshop. I’m seriously thinking about it.
Camellias in bloom.
I stopped in Montgomery for lunch. This is more like the New South I’ve read about, a 20th century boom-town, with bustling restaurants and souvenirs in its riverfront area. A tour guide cheerfully herded her charges down pavements that once served as Montgomery’s slave market.
There’s a small industry here in Hank Williams remembrances, with people picking over the details of another poor Alabama boy’s life. I’m a fan, so we dutifully forked over our $20. A swank tour coach from Georgia was parked next to his grave. 
Next stop, Mobile.

Taking up painting after retirement

Yesterday I wrote about painters who continued working into their dotage. Today, I give you an example of one who didn’t even start until after most of her peers were dead.

Hoosick Falls, New York, In Winter, 1944, Grandma Moses
“The examples you gave yesterday are of people who have painted their whole lives,” a reader wrote. “I won’t have time to learn to paint until I retire. Do you think that is also true for people who take up painting at a later age?”
Leaving aside the idea that other work makes painting impossible (it doesn’t), we have a great example in Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. She was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York. She died in 1961 in Hoosick Falls, which is about twenty miles south. She had given birth to ten children, five of whom survived. She and her husband subsisted as small farmers, making much of what they had and doing without. From our 21stcentury viewpoint, her life was hard and limited in scope.
Wash Day, 1945, Grandma Moses
Still, that band of land from Greenwich to Hoosick Falls is arguably New York’s most sublime landscape, a region of soft rolling hills, fertile fields and pretty, old farmhouses. The other place where she lived for two decades, Staunton, Virginia, is in the Shenandoah Valley. It could be described exactly the same way. Both are places where rich urbanites come to vacation and appreciate the beauties of nature, but where the locals struggle to keep the house painted.

Grandma Moses did not take up painting until she was 78, but she showed an inclination toward art for her whole life. She had rudimentary art lessons in the one-room schoolhouse she attended (now the Bennington Museum in Vermont), and access to art supplies from the family who hired her as a farm hand at the age of twelve.
Mt. Nebo On The Hill, crewel embroidery, 1940, Grandma Moses
She produced quilts, dolls, and much crewel embroidery. Her unique painting style resonates with the values of her needlework, which in turn was influenced by the Currier & Ives lithographs of her childhood. Long before she was a painter, she was embroidering landscape paintings of her own design. In fact, she only took up painting when arthritis made holding a needle too difficult.  
Moses was discovered by art collector Louis Caldor, who saw her work in the window of Thomas’ Drug Store in Hoosick Falls. Three of the paintings he bought were then included in the Contemporary Unknown American Painters exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939. Two one-woman New York shows immediately followed. This began Moses’s meteoric rise in the art world. By 1943, there was an overwhelming demand for her paintings. 
Photo is labelled on reverse: “Mrs. Thomas and Grandma Moses her paintings were displayed in Mrs. Thomas drug store Hoosick Falls, N.Y. that’s how she was discovered A man came by bought all paintings at $1.00 each.” c. 1940 (Courtesy Hoosick Falls Past and Present Facebook page)
Her homespun viewpoint contrasted sharply with the abstract-expressionist Zeitgeist of post-war intellectual America. She was popular for all the same reasons her friend Norman Rockwell was popular. By the middle of the 20th century, there was a noticeable split between the cognoscenti and the middle classes in terms of values and mores. It has only become wider and deeper today.
Most of Grandma Moses’s paintings were done on cardboard and are relatively small. She painted her scenes first, and then inserted figures going about the daily work of farm life. She didn’t draw from life or photographs, but from her own fertile imagination. Because of this, her paintings are reminiscent of the Labours of the Seasons from medieval Books of Hours.
Country Fair, 1950, Grandma Moses
She belongs in the pantheon of naĂŻve painters because she was self-taught, but to say that she was in any way primitive is risible, considering what has followed in the art world.

Itinerant painters (1 of 2)

Historical Monument of the American Republic, finally finished in 1888, was Field’s most famous painting. It was rejected for the Centennial Exposition, which it was painted to commemorate.
As I traveled from event to event this summer, people would ask me whether I was interested in doing this or that upcoming show. With the rise of plein air events, it would be easy to carve out a life as an itinerant painter, going from place to place all year long. I’m not planning to do it, but we have a tradition of itinerant painters in this country and its romance does kind of bewitch me.

Erastus Salisbury Field was a 19th century itinerant folk painter. Most of Field’s life was spent in western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley, although he did do two stints in New York City.
Woman with a Green Book (possibly Louisa Gallond Cook), 1838, was one of many itinerant portraits painted by Field before photography made this business obsolete.
By age 19, Field had displayed sufficient drawing chops to be taken as a student by Samuel F. B. Morse—yes, that Morse, who was a well-known painter and teacher besides being the inventor of the single-wire telegraph and the Morse code. Field’s few short months with Morse were the sum total of his formal education in painting. After Morse abruptly closed his teaching studio, Field returned to Massachusetts with enough technique to set up shop as an itinerant decorative painter and portrait painter.

In the 1840s, Field answered the siren call of New York again, relocating his family to Greenwich Village. After seven years, he was called back to Massachusetts to manage his ailing father’s farm.
The Garden of Eden, c. 1860, by Erastus Field.
It’s believed that Field studied the nascent art of photography in New York, but whether that’s true or not, he certainly saw the handwriting on the wall. He turned from painting portraits to painting landscapes and history and Bible scenes. His most famous work, The Historical Monument of the American Republic, is a complex metaphor for American history. He worked on it for 21 years. He was a terrifically productive painter, with about 300 works still surviving.

Field died at home on June 28, 1900 at the age of 95.

Field’s granddaughter-several-times-removed was my friend in Lewiston in the 1980s. She was also a talented and largely self-trained artist.
Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.

America’s favorite folk art form

Nativity crèche at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. This follows the German custom of not placing the Christ Child in place until Christmas. I confess to secretly plotting for years with my friend Judie to steal this and resurrect it on our Town Triangle on a Friday night, in the belief that nobody could call to complain until after sundown on Saturday. But my respect for the crèche’s creator, Al Bullwinkle, always stays my hand.
Every November the United States schedules a ruckus over removing religious symbols from our public spaces. Despite that, the Nativity crèche remains our favorite folk art form, at least now that those plywood cutouts of gardener’s butts are passé.
St. Francis instituting the crèche at Greccio, painted by Giotto sometime around 1300.
St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with creating the first Nativity scene. It was 1223, and he was attempting to center Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than on materialism and gift giving. It was a Living Nativity, and he staged it in a cave. Not only did he not make much headway against crass commercialism, the next year the Church recorded the first fight over who got to play the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Metropolitan Museum has a magnificent 18th century Neapolitan crèche set, which changes every year as they add new pieces.
The first sculpted Italian terra cotta Nativity sets were created shortly after that, probably because they couldn’t talk back. As crèches were scaled down to fit in homes, their construction shifted to include wood, wax, and plaster. Like other icons, many were forms of tow and wire with beautifully-sculpted faces and hands, dressed in lovely silk clothing. The custom reached its zenith in 18th century Naples. The Metropolitan Museum has an outstanding collection of these crèche figures.
Today there are plastic Fontanini sets from Italy, plaster crèches from Bavaria, KrakĂłw szopka from Poland, carved-wood sets from South America, paper nativities—in short the crèche tradition has as many variations as the world has cultures.  Nobody loves them more than Americans, where we translate the Holy Family into Peanuts™ characters and turn nativity sets into collectibles that we then bid up into dazzling prices in our other art form, the marketplace.
Polish nativity set, or KrakĂłw szopka. I have a beautiful polychrome nativity set, one made of pressed clay by my kids, and a mismatched plaster set made by my sister and brother and me in Sunday school almost fifty years ago. All are equally precious to me.
I live in a place whose town triangle in December is graced not by a crèche, but by a sewer-pipe menorah. Nativity crèches have great currency even here. I get great joy from peeking at them through lighted windows this time of year.
The blessings of the season be with you!

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!