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A Wooden Parade

July 2024
3min read

Awe for the gods inspired the great sculptors of ancient Greece, and piety the medieval worker in stone. In America in early times, sheer practicality—with a strong clash of patriotism and moments of rough humor—brought forth as our first sculptural artist the humble carver. No one who loves folk art can fail to respond to this pleasant heritage, or to what little of it has come clown to us after escaping the ravages of weather, fire, and that other destructive force called Progress.

Wood carving was largely an alfresco medium, and so we have assembled it here, as a kind of Christmas pageant, taking no greater liberties than did the makers of these pieces themselves. If the placements are odd, and prospects odder, they merely illustrate the richness and variety of the medium. The assemblage at left, which was certainly never seen before in town or countryside, combines a pasture gate and a barber pole with two architectural figures, each piece a flamboyant variation on a patriotic theme. On later pages still stranger congregations gather for our photographers. Wood available in great plenty urged the American folk carver to creative invention. It was as ready to hand to the whittler who was idly sitting by the kitchen stove as to the figurehead carver and his apprentice working in seaport towns. Wood’s three dimensions inspired those who worked in it to greater diversity of expression than the two dimensions allowed the provincial painter, and its sculptors were as motley a lot as the variety of their works. The amateur who experimented witli clear-grained planks or with logs stripped of bark was an innovator playing with an idea. Daytime farmers and storekeepers were nighttime carvers, dreaming of wildfowl on an eastern flyway or thinking of a spring wind to set small figures to turning and their bladed arms a-whirling. Professionals instructed in shop practice were more regimented than the amateurs, and their figures, trade signs, architectural ornaments, and figureheads took form from line drawings or paper patterns.

Almost certainly the earliest art expressions in the English colonies were carvings of two kinds: one that the colonists brought with them, the other inspired by the natives of this country. The Old World provided the design and form for gravestones, while the New World provided inspiration and pattern for decoys to bring ducks and geese out of the sky. Here the two worlds came together in an interesting combination: stones to commemorate the dead and lures to attract the wildfowl that sustained life. Almost as early as these first colonial art works were figureheads for sailing ships. The execution was ornamental, but the intention was practical: to provide a triangular supportive structure at the ship’s prow, beneath the bowsprit. Most folk carvings—like ships’ figureheads—were useful objects. But aside from their practical function, they represented something else: the American compulsion to enrich, to embellish, to decorate.

While the carvers’ vocations, skills, talents, and training were as diverse as their productions, almost always their creative concern was to translate inanimate wood into likenesses of living figures. The impulse was as common to the experienced artisan as it was to the untutored. Perhaps it was the most complete transformation that could be imagined; perhaps it exhibited the greatest achievement—the translation of a dead tree into a living image. There are exceptions to the folk sculptor’s usual delight in living images; for example, the emblems and symbols of the republic: flags, banners, and shields. But even in this burst of patriotic enthusiasm it is the figures of Columbia and the national bird that are the artist’s most frequent subjects.

Seldom in these carvings does the material dictate the form. Almost always the sculptor is master. Knots, forks of limbs, direction of grain are ignored. The carver dominates his material, and wood’s special characteristics fall before the worker’s axe, chisel, and knife. Logs are bolted together to form heavy-bodied figures for ships, for carousels, or for cigar stores. Knotholes are carefully filled and only rarely incorporated into the design. Grain plays no part in the finished works, which are most often gessoed and polychromed figures, now and then enriched with touches of gold leaf or paint. Small figures emerge from blocks or branches; occasionally planks—two-dimensional in aspect—are worked into three dimensions. An American flag translated into a wooden pasture gate (page 34) is not only an assembly of planks into sculptural form but also an illustration of how practicality and patriotism might be combined. Any farm gate is low and wide, a horizontally rectangular form; cross braces make it rigid, and additional strengtli was sometimes achieved by making the whole a threeply sandwich internally reinforced by diagonal struts. The unknown carver of the gate typifies the folk artist’s success in creating objects that are beautiful as well as useful.

The carver in his shop was both craftsman and tradesman. The maker of cigar-store Indians (who might once have been a carver of ships’ figureheads and ornaments) had an eager clientele waiting for his works. But most often the decoy makers, whirligig carvers, and trade sign fabricators had other vocations and took up carving to fill a need or an idle hour. A few struggling professionals moved about the countryside whittling out small beasts and birds for which they received a few cents or, at most, a night’s lodging.

American folk sculptors created some of the first artistic expressions in the colonies, but, unlike the painters, they continued to flourish in their craft into the twentieth century. The reason seems to be, as it was for portraitists before the camera, that there was a need for their services. For the carvers the need began earlier, and it lasted longer; their ranks were more diverse and their products more varied than those of the painter. They are colorful, naÖve, and vigorous works that are vital expressions of American imagination, inventiveness, and ingenuity.

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