By Dr. Amanda Dibando Awanjo
Folk art exists in the intersections of story, creativity, and the everyday. All of these pieces sit right up against the realities of each artist’s lives and culture. Nuzzled into the galleries within The Frick Art Museum, the art of renowned folk artists such as Grandma Moses, David Drake, Judith Scott, and others fill the space, sparking conversation, inspiration, and wonder.
Folk art is characterized by its makers. As self-taught artists, many featured in this exhibition create artwork that comments on their work, family life, and their own understandings of American life. Reminiscent of Langston Hughes’ 1926 poem “I, too, Sing America”, this exhibition, aptly named American Perspectives, takes us into the heart of a many-voiced America exploring the promises and paradoxes of American life as told through art.
When you enter the exhibition, you immediately see David Drake’s 1853 Jug. This ceramic jug is characterized by an alkaline glaze as well as Dave’s radical signature. Signed in bold, yet delicate cursive, Dave’s signature points to the paradoxes at the center of early American life.
In the 18th century, the United States enacted anti-literacy laws that banned enslaved persons from reading and writing. Abolitionist writer Frederick chronicles his life as a slave and his path to freedom in his autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Literacy and art-making were tools of free-thinking self-determination that terrified slave owners saw as a means of toppling their cruelly enforced racial hierarchy. As the slave owner, Master Hugh, says of Frederick Douglass, “He should know nothing but the will of his master and learn to obey it … If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself”. (Douglass, 2017, p. 14).
In Dave’s Jug, we see the artist running away with himself. This name neatly carved into the rising belly of the jug speaks to a radical act of claiming his craft, his name, and his art in the face of an impossible system.
The exhibition is broken into 4 different sections: Founders, Travellers, Seekers, and
Philosophers. David Drake’s Jug shares the first section, Founders, with Grandma Moses’ 1947 wintery landscape “Dividing of the Ways” and the low hanging sky in John “Jack” Savisky’s 1966 painting “Monday Morning.” The sky mirrors the gray of a typical wintery day in Pittsburgh. Calling forth the long history of the region and steel production, this piece sits nestled in between Founders and Travelers, which speaks to the ways that the workers of the era both landlocked and transient, so vastly shaped our contemporary landscape. In front of this piece with its cartoonish illustrative shapes and its bright background, many visitors reflect on how industry shapes not only our lives but our landscapes, and the very human cost of progress. For artists like John Savitsky, their art-making practice was largely informed by the realities of their work.
As you move through the exhibition, you begin to imagine how these artists who made these beautiful feats of artistic creation brushed up against the often-harsh realities of their lives. In the final room of the exhibition, Philosophers, Jean Marcel St. Jacques’ marvelous 2014 wooden quilt “Mother Sister May Have Sat In That Chair When She Lived Here Before Me” rises tall in the space of the gallery. Inspired by strip quilts of his great-grandmother and the woodworking mysticism of his great-grandfather, this phenomenal piece bends the mediums of woodworking and quilting to their breaking point. What we are left with is a striking mediation of home, homelessness, and the aftermath of catastrophe.
Created from the remnants of his home after it was destroyed in the wake of the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina, St. Jacques’ quilt is an uneasy rebuilding. Nails jut out from the piece, two sides of the chair suggest rest while denying it, the pieces of the quilt lay flat and on top of each other, making the looking experience a full-body one. This version of home, built out of the remnants of what was lost, resists simplicity. Like the entirety of the exhibition, St. Jacques’ piece asks us to think through the routines, institutions, and systems that impact our daily lives — their fragility, their strength.
American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection is on view at The Frick Pittsburgh until January 8. For tickets and more information, go here.
Amanda Awanjo is a Cameroonian American researcher, historian, and artist. She holds a Ph.D. in Critical Cultural Studies in Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. Inspired by W.E.B Du Bois’ 1927 question, “What will people in a hundred years say of Black Americans?” her research explores the role of Black women creators in the evolution of Afrofuturism throughout the 20th century. She currently works as Assistant Manager of Interpretation and Engagement at The Frick Pittsburgh. You can find her art and musings on Instagram @amandaastute.