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Folk Art Exhibit Offers Glimpse Into 19th Century American Life

From life-sized "cigar store Indians" to antique portraits and even a few hand-carved merry-go-round animals, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art is putting 19th century American folk art in the spotlight this summer and fall.

90.5 WESA’s Noah Brode spoke with chief curator Barbara Jones about the significance of the "Shared Legacy" exhibit.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


BRODE: How does this relate to now? We’re looking at things that are more than a hundred years old, made by more-or-less everyday people. Do you see any parallels now?

JONES: Oh, definitely, and in fact, we have a show in the gallery downstairs, the Robert Shaw Gallery, which is called ‘Please Touch,’ and all the pieces in there are made by contemporary self-taught artists, which the collector that loaned most of them to us, Pat McArdle, said we could let people touch, which he was really excited about. So, it shows that contemporary artists are still thinking along these same lines. They're self-taught, and they'll make works out of all kinds of materials and put things together in their own sort of creative expression, so it relates completely today.

I think you find -- I mean, if you look at the objects in the 'Please Touch' gallery, there's portraits, there's animals, there's a lot of the same kinds of things, but I think a lot of self-taught artists today are dealing with a lot of contemporary issues, like political issues, things that are happening in the world -- you know, contemporary history, social themes and things like that. But it carries over the same -- I mean, it's painting, it's sculpture, making things with found objects.

BRODE: So you have one show going on upstairs and another one going on downstairs, and they're kind of parallel.

JONES: That's what's fascinating about it: people can see artists working today.

BRODE: Is there a less functional or decorative object focus now, where you don't have a carved box or a painted piece of furniture, necessarily?

I think it inspires people to think, 'Oh, I could do that. I could hand-paint a chest. I could make something like this. I could carve a dog. I could make a bird.'

JONES: Well, I'd say yes and no, but you'll find furniture-makers out there, chair-makers, hand-painted chests. They still carry on those traditions, to be very practical, but there's a more, I don't know, sort of modern (take). They become more sculptural to me, at least. They still function, but they might not look like they function so much. You know, I think a lot of furniture designers make incredibly beautiful forms, and yes, you can sit in them, you can lie down in them, you can open them, close them, but they don't look like they're meant to do that. They look like a sculpture.

BRODE: Do you think (the exhibit is) something that people connect with because they could say, 'I could do that if I practiced?' Does that intimacy inspire a personal connection?

JONES: There's a nostalgia to it. There's things they remember from childhood. There's exactly that -- "I could do that." And I think it inspires people to think, "Oh, I could do that. I could hand-paint a chest. I could make something like this. I could carve a dog. I could make a bird."

I think it's all of that, but I think it also (familiarizes) people with a tradition -- the handcrafted, the handmade, the artisan, which we've gotten so far away from with everything so mechanically made.... There is a real nostalgia for those days when things were all made like that.

BRODE: Lately there's been a movement toward locally made things, locally produced food, goods and whatnot.

JONES: Right. Farm-to-table and, yeah, I think it's all really important and it all really plays into what people think about as important.

BRODE: Have you heard back from people -- positive feedback?

JONES: Yeah, we're getting a lot of positive feedback and good visitation for this show. People are commenting positively. I haven't heard anything negative yet. I don't think there's anything negative you could say. You fall in love with all of those objects.

Jones will give a guided tour of the Westmoreland's "Shared Legacy" antique folk art exhibit at 6 p.m. on Wed., Aug. 17. The exhibit runs through Oct. 13.