The charm of stencil art attracts new enthusiasts

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.

Adele Bishop has helped dust off and revive the Early American art of stenciling, a decorative craft practiced by our forebears but left largely in limbo for a century or so. Within the last 20 years, Miss Bishop has worked to bring the art of stenciling forward out of the past, give it a vital present, and what she predicts will be a glowing future.

As one of the country's foremost authorities on stencil art, she is today busily writing about, teaching, and demonstrating this ancient craft form that actually dates back to Greek and Roman times. Although she began her career as a custom stenciler in New York City, in partnership with the co-author of her book, Cile Lord, she has, since her marriage to John Callaway, lived and worked out of her home and studio in Dorset, Vt. The business office for the Adele Bishop Inc. is located in nearby Manchester.

Several years ago many top interior designers across the country began to feature stenciled walls and floors in their work, and in trend-setting "decorator show-house" projects and in department store model rooms. And suddenly, or so it seemed, stencil art was again stylish and in fashion. And all kinds of people were rushing in to learn the secret of its charm.

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Stenciling, Miss Bishop points out, is being used today as overall wall, ceiling, and floor decoration, as well as for borders around windows and doors. It also appears as dadoes, friezes, and ceiling medallions.

This rediscovered folk art is also being used to enliven window shades, furniture, pillows, and other accessories. Ready-made stencil kits are available through arts and crafts stores, and stencil paper, paints, and brushes are now available nationally for those who want to design, cut, and paint on their own original patterns.

Stencil decoration is done by dabbing paint onto a surface through a paper or cardboard opening, cut with the desired motif. Two-color patterns require two stencils, the second applied when the first paint has dried.

In earlier times, when wallpaper was both expensive and rare, itenerant artists traveled around the countryside, painting borders, stripes, and stylized motifs directly onto the whitewashed plaster of Colonial homes. They cut their own stencils and mixed their own primitive paints.

At present, a whole new crop of stencil specialists are starting their own businesses, not only to offer custom stenciling services, but to produce stenciled articles to sell retail, and to teach the craft to individuals and to adult education classes.

These specialists include people like Judith Hendershot in Evanston, Ill., Miriam Jordan and Louise Jones and their "Handcrafted Walls" business in Lake Jackson, Texas, Megan Parry in Boulder, Colo., and literally hundreds of others.

Cile Lord continues as one of the most innovative custom stencilers in New York City, and trains and employs a staff of stencil artists. They work with interior designers, architects, and with people who are involved in all aspects of historic restoration and rejuvenation.

According to Adele Bishop, museums and historic societies are giving lectures and demonstrations on stenciling all over the country. "Since most people don't know what top quality stenciling looks like, much less how to do it, such demonstrations are increasingly in demand, not only at museums and clubs, but in stores and schools," she says.

Stenciling parties, like the old-fashioned barn raisings and quilting bees, have emerged as practical social occasions, Miss Bishop points out. People who want to stencil a room in one day are inviting their friends and asking them to pitch in to help.

Whole families are also enjoying stenciling together as husbands, wives, and children tackle do-it-together projects. Stenciling is being used as a joint effort in many community projects as well.

Adele Bishop expects a bright future for stenciling, and predicts that it will be used increasingly in school art classes, will be taught to senior citizens and to the handicapped, and applied to creative prison reform programs since it gives instant results and a sense of creative accomplishment without a great outlay of money or materials. She also foresees that more and more people will be stenciling their own designs onto their clothing, as well as onto the textiles used in their homes.

As for Miss Bishop's current involvement, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., recently authorized her to reproduce its stencils, which are being marketed nationally. "The Shelburne Museum Stencils" can also be ordered directly from her, Box 557, Manchester, Vt. 05254.

Right now, Miss Bishop is conducting three-day teaching workshops each month, in order to build up a supply of people qualified to teach stencil techniques around the country.

The book that Miss Bishop co-authored with Cile Lord called "The Art of Decorative Stenciling" came out in hardback in 1976, and its third edition, published by Penguin, New York, is out this spring in paperback at $12.95

Two other books that Miss Bishop thinks could be useful to the serious stencilist, are "Early New England Wall Stencils" by Kenneth Jewett, an $8.95 paperback published by the Harmony division of Crown Publishers Inc., New York, and "Early American Wall Stencils" by Janet Waring, a $6.95 paperback published by the Dover Press, New York.

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