Folk Art of Maine and Massachusetts
As city after city and state after state begin promoting cultural tourism in hopes of cashing in on the much-ballyhooed creative economy, art trails or museum trails have become an increasingly popular marketing tool. Maine, for example, already has a Maine Art Museums Trail and a Maine Fiberarts Tour. Now it has a Maine Folk Art Trail as well.
The Maine Folk Art Trail is essentially a consortium of 11 art museums and historical societies that have banded together to coordinate folk art exhibitions. Ten of these institutions are featured in Folk Art in Maine: Uncommon Treasures, 1750-1925 (Down East Books, $35 hardcover), a celebration of Maine’s folk arts heritage beautifully illustrated with 110 color photographs in its 144 pages.
Folk Art In Maine features, for instance, 18th and 19th century samplers from the Bates College Museum of Art, portraits and landscapes from Colby College Museum of Art, scrimshaw and nautical carvings from the Farnsworth Art Museum, dolls and quilts from the Maine Historical Society, ship models and antique sea bags from the Maine Maritime Museum, jugs and pots from the Maine State Museum, colonial signs and salt boxes from the Museums of Old York, decoys and figureheads from the Penobscot Marine Museum, murals and weathervanes from the Rufus Porter Museum, and colonial portraits from the Saco Museum. The only stop on the Maine Folk Art Trail not featured in the book is the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum where one finds the pure simplicity of the authentic Shaker furniture and crafts.
Folk Art In Maine assumes that we all agree on what constitutes folk art and recognize it as such when we see it. In general, this means art and artifacts designed and executed by amateurs and artisans and most often arising out of everyday life with some utilitarian or memorial function. I was surprised, therefore, to see my all-time favorite Maine painting, Parson Jonathan Fisher’s 1824 “A Morning View of Blue Hill Village” from the Farnsworth collection, presented as folk art. Parson Fisher was a Harvard-educated polymath who wrote, painted, preached, invented, experimented, farmed, and designed, but I would consider him a fine artist, not a folk artist. Be that as it may, the Maine Folk Art Trail points the way to some wonderful explorations of the material culture of Maine’s past.
The National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts, presents an even broader definition of contemporary folk art in its featured exhibition, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts, a marvelously diverse exhibition of some 100 works by 70 Massachusetts artists and artisans, noting that “traditional art involves the shaping of deeply held cultural values into meaningful artistic forms.” Keepers of Tradition evolved from eight years of field research by the folklorists of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and, in addition to the exhibition in Lexington, resulted in a 200-page catalogue (University of Massachusetts Press, $24.95 softcover) and a dedicated Massachusetts Folk Arts website.
The National Heritage Museum, a wonderfully peculiar and patriotic institution supported by the Scottish Rite Freemasons, somehow seems just the right place to bring together a wild bouquet of multicultural flowerings ranging from prim and proper Nantucket Lightship baskets to more exotic Native American quill work, Caribbean carnival costumes, Armenian lace, Chinese seals, and Puerto Rican santos and masks, all produced in recent years within the borders of the Bay State.
Whether artifacts of Maine past or Massachusetts present, folk art is the art of the people, a more humble manifestation of the human experience perhaps but much more authentic than much of the artifice that passes as fine art today.
Keepers of Tradition; Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts, May 18 through February 8, 2009, at the National Heritage Museum, 33 Marrett Rd., Lexington, MA, 781-861-6559.