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Wooden Delights

May 2024
4min read

An obscure Pennsylvania carpenter named John Scholl left the world a legacy of charming toys and beautiful fantasies

Every so often the world of American folk art museums and collectors discovers a new star to add to its firmament—a primitive painter, a rustic sculptor. This happened in 1967 when a Manhattan gallery held an exhibition of thirty-seven astonishing wood carvings by a carpenter named John Scholl. Born in W’fcrttemberg in 1827, Scholl emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1853 and lived there until his death in 1916. But despite his unquestioned talent as a folk artist, his work was known only locally until his recent discovery.

No other state has proved such a rich mine of folk art as Pennsylvania. The credit for this must go to the thousands of immigrants from the southern part of Germany along the Rhine called the Palatinate, as well as from neighboring Baden, Württemberg, Alsace, Lorraine, and Switzerland, who settled there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These freedom-loving, devout, and able farmers—Mennonite, Amish, Dunkard, Lutheran, and Reformed—became the dominant strain in the eastern Pennsylvania counties of Northampton, Lehigh, Berks, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and York. By the Revolution they numbered one hundred and sixty thousand. It was this stock that produced the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Germans of Pennsylvania were a people who delighted in the decoration of the utensils of everyday life; and their regularly recurring designs—motifs like the tulip, the heart, the bird, and the wheel—are famous everywhere.

The major source of inspiration for this decoration was religious, and since the Pennsylvania Germans were Protestants, the feelings that would have been expressed in the furnishings of their churches had they been Catholics found an outlet in their homes. A matter of serious debate among specialists in Pennsylvania German ait is whether these people fully understood the meaning of the symbols they used. Did they know, for instance, that in German religions art the tulip was often used instead of the traditional lily to symbolie purity and chastity, or that from ancient times the spoked wheel represented the sun and the cross? It would be foolish to say that at all times and in all places every Pennsylvania German artist knew these things, but when the symbols were painted on hymnals and baptismal certificates or were carved on tombstones, there can lie little doubt that they were intended as something more than mere whimsical decoration.

In the 1950’s—after the failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848 in the principalities and kingdoms of Germany—a new wave of Germans came to America. Amcng these immigrants were John Scholl and his wife, Augusta. Attracted by the large number of Germans already in Pennsylvania, they settled first in Shenandoah, in the eastern part of the state, but soon moved northwest to heavily forested Potter County, en the New York border. There, in a colony of Germans called Germania, Scholl plied his trade as a carpenter. He built his own house and barn, the houses of many of his neighbors, the church, the general store, and the brewery. There he and his wife raised nine children and lived a quiet life ordered by their devout Lutheran faith.

Local tradition insists that Scholl began at the age of eighty to carve the creations that have now made him famous. But even though he lived to be eightynine, there would not have been sufficient time for him to have used his jackknife and razor blade, his saws and rasps, to fashion the forty-five objects—some of them seven feet tall—that he has left us. It is more likely that he began creating his fantasies at an earlier age, probably around the turn of the century.

Though Scholl came to America too late to qualify as Pennsylvania Dutch, and settled more than a hundred miles from the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland, it is obvious that the inspiration of his designs springs from that source. If Scholl’s creations are reminiscent of anything, it is of the Pennsylvania Dutch trivets, with their combinations of hearts, circles, and stars.

But of Scholl must be asked the same question that is asked of other Pennsylvania German artists: Did he always use the Pennsylvania Dutch symbols with a full awareness of their ancient meanings? In pieces such as Flowering Circle With Doves it is most likely that he employed the symbols primarily because he thought them beautiful. Yet there can be little question that in a work such as Fountain With Peacocks the appearance of two important symbols of eternal life is more than mere coincidence. Here Scholl has carved not two birds having a drink of water, but a reaffirmation of the Christian belief in immortality.

What sets Scholl’s work apart from all other Pennsylvania German folk art is its architectural quality. It has the air of having been made by one who has built houses. Scholl piled symbol upon symbol and then tied the whole thing together in a way that reminds one of the fretwork on the porches of Victorian cottages and the scrollwork that decorated their sharply pointed gables. This effect is heightened by the fact that Scholl painted his creations in shades favored hy the Victorians—gold and white, soft blues, greens, and reds, and mustard yellow. As a final architectural touch, he often constructed special stands for his carvings, stands rich with beads and volutes.

In addition to his fantasies, Scholl made toys that work—ferris wheels and carousels that revolve and carry carved birds and people. He also made action toys with little men who, when activated by an ingenious system of wheels, pulleys, and cranks, pump and grind and march. In their mechanical ingenuity Scholl’s toys hark back to the work of the cuckoo-clock makers of the Black Forest in his native W’fcrttemberg.

Scholl never sold any of his creations and never gave any away, but kept them in the parlor of his house. After his death in 1916 his carvings remained in the house for a generation, cared for by his children. For another generation they were stored in a barn; but in the 1960’s some of the Scholl grandchildren began to think that his work might be of interest to others. As a result, the Stony Point Folk Art Gallery of Stony Point, New York, acquired the carvings and arranged for an exhibition of Scholl’s creations at the Willard Gallery in Manhattan. As soon as they were seen they became a sensation and were quickly bought by museums and collectors.

Looking at the photograph of John Scholl that accompanies these pictures of his work, one cannot help wondering what he would think of the attention that his fantasies and toys are receiving. The answer is not too difficult. Since he carved to bring pleasure to himself and his family, he could only be pleased that his creations have brought joy to a far wider circle than he would ever have dreamed possible.

David G. Lowe

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