February 23, 2016

"Mystery and Benevolence" at the American Folk Art Museum

Most of us are familiar with the existence of fraternal societies such as the Freemasons, the Elks, Rotarians and the Lions Club, but for many, these benevolent orders conjure images of secret handshakes and funny outfits.  While the particular rituals and iconography might seem strange to modern day outsiders, these fraternal organizations are steeped in history and their ceremonies reflect generations of practice and observance.

Many benevolent societies began in Europe as mutual associations for insurance or banking - collectives that offered their members benefits such as social and financial services.  Very often, these groups were formed based on religious or professional affiliations and they functioned as cooperatives where everyone contributed and all could benefit.  Emigrants to America brought these customs with them and the early settlers incorporated the tenets of these traditional fraternal orders into their new lives.

Recently opened at The American Folk Art Museum is "Mystery and Benevolence:  Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art" a captivating exhibition of fraternal objects that were donated to the museum by collectors Kendra and Allan Daniel.  Hand-crafted of various materials, and some over two hundred years old, these pieces range from the practical to the fanciful.  What they all have in common is a distinctive decorative element related to the creator's lodge or order.  While the abundance of symbolic imagery might be a little off-putting for the uninformed, these sometimes primitive expressions of devotion reflect the values and ideals of the members and present a rare glimpse into the workings of these secretive societies.

The works on view are varied in both purpose and material.  Ceremonial objects like these wooden staffs with the "Heart in Hand" finials were used by the Odd Fellows "Conductors" to lead initiates and visitors around the lodge.  The symbol represents the values of candor, frankness and sincerity, and the lesson that "whatever the hand finds to do, the heart should go forth in wisdom".

This decorated robe was made in Ohio between 1875-1925 and was worn during Odd Fellows rituals as the costume for the "Inner Guard".  In effect, the Inner Guard character guarded the doors until the initiates were ready to pass through them.

Behind the robe is a tracing board, usually painted canvas or wood, where the various symbols of the order are illustrated as a teaching tool.

Similar in construction and purpose is this roll-up shade with the image of a skeleton.  This was probably used by a Masonic Knights Templar Commandery to instruct initiates during their ritual.  The Knights Templar is the rare exception in Masonic groups that requires the belief in Christianity rather than a more general belief in a higher power.

This small hooked rug bears the Order of Odd Fellows logo of "The Three Link Fraternity" representing friendship, love and truth, as well as a beehive for industry and the Eye of Providence as the all-seeing eye of God.

This small plaster plaque made in the second half of the nineteenth century is another example of Odd Fellows iconography with the Three Link Fraternity, the Eye and the hands joined in unity.

Many prominent people were members of fraternal organizations including presidents, musicians, judges, royals, scientists, actors and industrialists from all backgrounds.  What bound them together was their common belief in the core values promoted by these benevolent groups - the principles of fellowship, hard work, charity, service, truthfulness and wisdom.  Virtues that remain at the bedrock of our culture today.

While benevolent societies are still a bit of a mystery in the internet world, this exhibition successfully clarifies and normalizes some of the secrecy surrounding them.  One simple but powerful message that anyone can benefit from is posted on this painted Fraternal Shield, not associated with any particular group or lodge, but resonant to us all.

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