August 06, 2014

"Self-Taught Genius" Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum

The brave and hardy souls who crossed the ocean to settle the New World certainly had a lot more on their minds than decoration and design.  To be sure, mere existence - food, shelter, safety - were first and foremost in their collective psyche.  But human beings have a natural desire to create and express themselves through ornament and so, once the basic necessities were taken care of, these new Americans began to embellish everyday items and later create objets d'art with no intrinsic practical purpose.

"Whirligig Figure of a Knife-Grinder"
Artist Unknown, New England, 1875

Often this primitive adornment is referred to as "folk art" or "outsider art" - works of beauty created by people with no formal artistic education or training.  In their current exhibition, the American Folk Art Museum takes the notion one step further by introducing the concept of "self-taught genius".

Michael Rothloff, Pennsylvania, 1922

What exactly is "self-taught genius" you might ask?  Let's begin with the underlying tenet that after the War of Independence all the citizens of this new United States had to invent and create what it was to be an American.  They were literally "self-taught Americans" developing a culture and history as they went along.  Independence and freedom fostered ingenuity, self-reliance, individual growth and a strong national identity.

"Liberty Needlework"
Lucina Henderson, Massachusetts, 1808

Which brings us to the "genius" part of the equation.  The curators of the exhibition define "genius" as a "potential for creative thought and vision inherent in the consciousness of all people".  Not a result of academic study and endless repetition but an innate ability to understand and express original ideas through any artistic medium.

"Mary Valentine Butcher / Dr. Christopher Butcher"
Jack Mantel, Pennsylvania, circa 1825-30

And so, finally, we come to some of the splendid examples of what these "self-taught geniuses" have produced in the 238 year history of the United States of America.  Arranged loosely in categories including "Ingenuity", "Reformers", "Achievers" and "Messengers" are over one hundred examples of works ranging from the utilitarian to the fantastic, all created by auto didactic artists.

"Lady with Muff"
William Edmondson, Tennessee, 1940

From a modern perspective - especially with what passes for Contemporary Art these days - few would question that these works, whether intended as "art" or not, were made by people with exceptional creative and aesthetic talents.  People who felt so passionately that they intuitively expressed their emotions by painting, drawing, sewing, carving or otherwise channeling their vision into a physical object.  The urge to "make something" definitely precipitated "self-taught" - but is it truly "genius"?  While the exhibition certainly makes one ponder the question there is no clear cut answer.  Is one an artist because of, or in spite of, training, and is a formally trained artist better or worse than an intuitive one?  One thing is sure, these are expressions of love, objects of desire and works of vision.

"Self-Taught Genius" will travel throughout the United States until 2017.

Artist Unknown, New England, 1818-1822

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