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Out of the attic

Museums collaborate to show off naive and primitive collections

By Janet Mendelsohn
Globe Correspondent / August 17, 2008
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YORK - Eliphalet Grover, a lighthouse keeper on Boon Island, Maine, in 1821 made a fiddle from wood roof shingles. At the instrument's scroll end, he carved the shape of a human head. Maybe it was an antidote to the keeper's lonely life on that small rocky outcropping. Or perhaps his artistry was inspired by the same "entrepreneurial spirit" and use of available materials that got him in trouble with the government. Soon after, Grover was dismissed for allegedly selling whale oil intended to operate the light, among other ventures.

At the Museums of Old York, Grover's fiddle is among several engaging samples of his craftsmanship, including a document box in the style of the period's expensive furniture, and a cane on which he carved a man's head, a snake, and a fox and grapes - all proverbial symbols of temptation and betrayal.

Among folk art collectors, Maine is known for its abundance of handcrafted works made between 1750 and 1925. Mariners, lumbermen, farmers, and schoolgirls were among the many largely untrained artists who produced functional or decorative pieces to chronicle or brighten their lives. They carved intricate scrimshaw pictures on whalebone; built whimsical weather vanes and ships in bottles; wove sturdy baskets; and painted furniture and portraits. Embroidered family heirlooms and illustrated sea chests preserved chapters in their personal stories and recorded US history.

Much of this bounty has rarely been seen by the public, until now. Through fall, 11 of the state's art and history museums are displaying more than 500 of their most interesting pieces in concurrent exhibitions. It's called the Maine Folk Art Trail.

If you're ambitious, you can visit all 11 stops in three days, says Charles Burden, a native Mainer who conceived of the trail and coordinated the project. But don't rush a road trip with many enticing detours as it stretches from York to Searsport along coastal Route 1 and loops around, roughly along Interstate 95, to Waterville, Augusta, Lewiston, Bridgton, and New Gloucester, back to the coast at Portland.

Burden, a retired pediatrician in Richmond, has been fascinated with pieces of the country's past since finding an antique nursing bottle years ago. His passion was nourished by old silver, sea chests, and other nautical pieces. In 1964, he cofounded the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. Twice a year, with fellow members of the American Folk Art Society he visits private and public collections across the country. Two years ago, Burden enlisted his friend Ray Egan of Boothbay, and the two collectors began contacting museums to arrange access to outstanding pieces for 50 members of the society coming to Maine this fall.

"In the past, our group has had to go into museum storage areas where it's difficult to see the wonderful objects that are usually kept on racks in dim vaults," said Burden, whose idea quickly morphed into a much more ambitious project: the Maine Folk Art Trail, possibly the only route of its kind in the country. He and Egan coordinated not only the 11 public exhibitions, but also spent countless hours working on a companion hardcover book that was published in May and a one-day symposium to be held Sept. 28 in the Olin Arts Center at Bates College in Lewiston.

Through November, exhibits are open to the public at Bates College Museum of Art, Colby College Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art Museum, Maine Historical Society, Maine Maritime Museum, Maine State Museum, Penobscot Marine Museum, the Rufus Porter Museum, Saco Museum, and Museums of Old York. At Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Museum, the exhibit will run through next year. Be forewarned: Sometimes smaller venues open later or close earlier than advertised and closing dates vary. Call ahead to be sure they're open. But arrive later in the day, as we did on occasion, and you may meet a volunteer or staff member happy to keep the lights on later and share stories about what you see.

Links to each museum and information on the symposium and book are on the trail website,mainefolkarttrail.org.

"A good piece of folk art makes you smile," says Burden, "because usually they are naive enough that you can see the artist was really trying but missed." Authenticity is part of their appeal, which is why the exhibits end with pieces made around 1925. About that time, Burden says, people began to realize they could make a profit by selling items deliberately made to look like folk art.

In her introduction to the companion book, "Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures (1750-1925)" (Down East, 2008), Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, notes that many of Maine's vibrant works are typical of folk art forms found elsewhere in the country while others are particular to Maine's maritime culture. "All now offer valuable insights into changing patterns of life even as we marvel at their vitality of expression," says Hollander. "The survival of these artworks outside the families in which they descended attests to a burgeoning movement among early preservationists to hold onto vestiges of American culture that were being lost to history."

Begin the trail at the Museums of Old York not only because it is closest to Boston but also because this exhibit asks us to question our perceptions of fine art, folk art, and advertising. The exhibit titled "What Is Folk Art?" illustrates how distinctions are often unclear. One sign asks, "If an object was made by a trade artisan or used as advertising, is it folk art?" Others query, "What if the maker was specifically trained, or if his pieces became so popular that he sold them commercially?" Or, as with decoys and samplers, "If the work was produced following a standardized form, is it art?"

This is the inaugural exhibit in the museum's Remick Barn, recently renovated to create dedicated gallery and education space for Old York's nine historic buildings, circa 1719 to 1867. The showstopper here is a four-poster bed wrapped in crewel embroidered fabrics, from canopy to skirts. The beautiful needlework was completed more than 200 years ago by Mary Bulman (1754-92), who lived nearby. A love poem is visible inside the canopy. During the 1920s, the bed hangings arrived at the museum door, folded in two cardboard cases, carried by women who found them while cleaning out a local relative's home. Covering the bed is a richly floral, hooked rug (maker unknown) that has been in the museum's collection since at least 1906.

"Like most of our collection," says Scott Stevens, museum director, "these items are tied to The Yorks [York, York Harbor, York Beach, and Cape Neddick] and were brought to us by York residents. This was once a thriving seaport and these were their family possessions. Many families still here go back to the 17th century. The local historical society began collecting these pieces in the 1800s. It evolved into this museum. We became the town's attic or repository as they gave us things, like the bedding, that large national museums covet."

Saco Museum, the third-oldest in Maine, takes a more traditional approach with signs that identify objects in their original context - for example, five large leather buckets. Saco and neighboring Biddeford were once important cotton mill towns. By local city ordinance in 1783, every house was required to own a fire bucket identifiable by family name. When an alarm sounded, residents quickly formed fire brigades, passing buckets of water hand over hand to quench the flames. Although utilitarian, the buckets here are handsomely painted with family crests, floral patterns, and patriotic designs.

One room contains family portraits by John Brewster Jr., an itinerant, mostly self-taught painter who was deaf and mute. The paintings were commissioned in the early 1800s by Colonel Thomas Cutts of Saco. They depict Cutts and his wife, their children, and their grandchildren in a way that, although straightforward, nonetheless reveals each subject's personality. Some consider Brewster a master of American primitive painting. The folk art exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland includes paintings by the genre's most famous artist, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, known as Grandma Moses.

In New Gloucester, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village is an active community, home to four Shakers who live on a working farm with a research library and museum. As part of their education outreach mission, the exhibit inaugurates specially designed gallery space in the Spin House, a former woodshed built in 1816. Two videos extend the presentation. One features objects for which there was no room in the gallery, the other documents Shakers working at a community in New Lebanon, N.Y., including Sister Annie Tuttle weaving baskets, some of which are on display.

"The exhibit represents 150 years of Shaker craftsmanship and artistry," said Leonard Brooks, the village's longtime director. "Previously, we had open exhibit space but to make this a more meaningful exhibit for the Maine Folk Art Trail, we built this new space that allows you to spend more time with individual pieces." Open seasonally, this is the only exhibit on the trail continuing through fall of next year.

Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at janet@janetmendelsohn.com.

maine folk art
Needlework 18th-century bed coverings and hangings. (DOWNEAST BOOKS)

If You Go

Maine Folk Art Trail 2008

mainefolkarttrail.org

Companion book

"Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures (1750-1925)" Kevin D. Murphy, editor; 144 pp., hardcover, illustrated, $35. Available from downeast.com and participating museums.

Folk Art Symposium

Olin Arts Center, Bates College

75 Russell St., Lewiston

207-786-6158

Sept. 28, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Participating exhibits

Bates College Museum of Art

75 Russell St., Lewiston

207-786-6158

bates.edu/museum.xml

Through Dec. 14 Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.

Colby College Museum of Art

5600 Mayflower Hill Drive

Waterville

207-859-5600 colby.edu/museum

Through Oct. 19 Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sunday noon-4:30. Free.

Farnsworth Art Museum

16 Museum St., Rockland

207-596-6457

farnsworthmuseum.org

Through Nov. 30. Through Columbus Day 10 a.m.-5 p.m., free Sundays 10-1 and Wednesdays 5-8. Call for off-season and evening hours. Adults $12, seniors and students $10, age 16 and under free. Call for off-season and evening hours.

Maine Historical Society Museum
489 Congress St., Portland

207-774-1822; mainehistory.org

Through Dec. 30 Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5. Adults $5, seniors and students $4, children $2.

Maine Maritime Museum

243 Washington St., Bath

207-443-1316

mainemaritimemuseum.org

Through Oct. 13 daily 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Adults $10, seniors $9, ages 7-17 $7, 16 and under free.

Maine State Museum

230 State St., Augusta

207-287-2301

maine.gov/museum

Through Oct. 11 Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10-4. Adults $2, ages 6-18 $1.

Penobscot Marine Museum

5 Church St., Searsport

207-548-2529

penobscotmarinemuseum.org

Through Oct. 19 Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5. Adults $8, ages 7-15 $3, 6 and under free, families $18.

The Rufus Porter Museum

67 North High St., Bridgton

207-647-2828

rufusportermuseum.org

Through Oct. 12 Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $5, seniors, students, groups larger than 15 $4, age 12 and under free.

Saco Museum

371 Main St., Saco

207-283-3861

sacomuseum.org

Through Sept. 28. Including items on loan from the Brick Store Museum, Kennebunk, and Portland Fire Museum. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday-Sunday noon-4, Thursday till 8. Adults $4, seniors $3, students and children age 6 and older $2, 5 and under free.

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum

707 Shaker Road, New Gloucester

207-926-4597; shaker.lib.me.us

Through Oct. 6 and May 22- Oct. 5, 2009. Including 75-minute guided tour of the village. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Adults $6.50, ages 6-12 $2, 5 and under free.

Museums of Old York

3 Lindsay Road, York

207-363-4974; oldyork.org

Through Nov. 28 Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $5, seniors $4, ages 4-16 $3, families $15.

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