Exhibit showcases art from everyday folk

A carousel greyhound, a foot scraper in the shape of a strutting chicken, colorful quilts, whirligigs, and a big red barn painted on the side of the wall. Who knew folk art could be so much fun?

"American Folk," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Aug. 5, features more than 200 colorful and unusual objects, mostly from the 19th century. "The creators would be surprised by the attention," says Carol Troyen, one of the exhibit curators. "These are objects made by middle-class people with little training."

Folk art isn't easily definable. Most people would say "they know it when they see it." Once called "primitive," folk art is now likely to be referred to as "nonacademic," "amateur," and "self-taught," writes Gerald W.R. Ward in the book accompanying the exhibition.

Most of the works are culled from the museum's own collection, which it started in the 1940s. The exhibit is not a history of folk art. Instead, it is grouped by themes: "The 18th Century" (featuring utilitarian objects such as painted wooden chests); "Family Album" (large family portraits of working-class and wealthy families); "Birds and Beast" (weather vanes, carousel figures); "Land and Sea" (landscape paintings); and "God and Country" (patriotic imagery).

Like the popular album quilts sewn by different hands in the 19th century, each work of art tells a story. The embroidery "View of the Boston Common" was made by 17-year-old Hannah Otis. She designed her picture based on the landscape she saw every day: the Boston Common and Beacon Hill.

Spirituality also has a strong presence. A quilt by Harriet Powers, a former slave, illustrates Bible stories, including Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and the Crucifixion. "It's the most beloved and most reproduced" piece in the exhibition, says curator Pamela Parmal. "Harriet's spirituality really comes through."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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