CAM presents American folk art


Some artists are trained in art schools; others develop creativity on their own. Works by the latter are sometimes called “primitive” because they don’t follow the standards of cultivated art. But they can still be eminently expressive and thought provoking. They are often decorative in plain but artful ways that evoke simpler times. And sometimes they function as harbingers of future art that’s admired today.

James Mair Salisbury (c. 1835), by Ammi Phillips. The temporary exhibition currently at the Cincinnati Art Museum, A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America, celebrates art rooted in personal and cultural identity and made by self-taught or minimally trained artists. Created by everyday people instead of individuals with refined tastes and training, folk art was common in the United States between 1800 and 1925. CAM’s exhibition offers more than 100 pieces, with roughly 60 from esteemed folk art collector Barbara L. Gordon. With 40 additional regional loans, this is the most expansive array of American folk art ever displayed locally.

At the exhibition’s opening in June, Gordon told me she was introduced to folk art in Colonial Williamsburg on a seventh-grade trip from Cleveland. As an adult, her passion for folk art and historic toys continued. “I saw those objects — whirligigs, decorated, painted furniture, blanket chests and cigar-store figures — and I just knew that’s what I wanted to collect.”

Asked what appeals to her about folk art, Gordon said, “A lot of it is the shapes and the colors — and the whole idea that you can learn a lot about early American life. These objects tell you so much about history, and they’re beautiful.”

Rabbit (c. 1910), attributed to the Dentzel Company.At first, Gordon spent five years acquiring a broad array of folk art. But then, she says, on the advice of a respected dealer, “I sold everything and started again, trying to stay disciplined and just buying great objects to…

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