Spring Issue 2023
Oddities & Propensities: Folk Art at the Kentucky Museum
By Jackson Medel
During my time at the Kentucky Museum, working under the Henry Luce Foundation grant, “Folk Art Digitization,” I found myself immersed in all of the qualities that a folklorist might expect from a museum’s collection of folk art. I was working with, handling, documenting, and cataloging objects representative of both the everyday and the exceptional. Simple carvings of pig families alongside complex, religious sculptures and statuary. Plain, easy-to-make tied quilts alongside complex, figurative art quilts. Well-used pull-toys based on Russian folk designs alongside functional and finely crafted hand tools. These often contradictory objects highlight the very scale of what folk art means and how it can be represented within a museum or programmatic context. I found the variety of objects, styles, media, and intents present in the Kentucky Museum’s collection to be fascinating, inspiring, and, ultimately, curious. It was that last point that stood out to me as I worked through boxes of old objects, new acquisitions, and the significant quilt collection at the museum. So much of what I worked with at the Kentucky Museum and what I have prioritized in my personal work has had that notion at its core:
Oddities have always fascinated me and working as a folklorist within museum settings for six years has given me the opportunity to engage with some of the oddest, most interesting, and curious things I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.
My initial work at the Kentucky Museum focused on a 1987 project called Handmade Harvest: Traditional Arts of Tobacco Farmers that was funded by a grant from Phillip Morris. It showcased the artistic and utilitarian productions of tobacco farmers throughout the Southeast United States. While it focused primarily on tobacco farmers from Kentucky, staff collected objects from North Carolina to Tennessee to Florida. Simultaneously, the fieldworkers were conducting ethnographic interviews and engaging in participant observation, leading to a rich archival documentation of the project, the people, and the resulting exhibit. The Handmade Harvest Collection is an important seed for the Kentucky Museum’s growing folk art collection and is representative of one of the museum’s key collection area priorities. Folk art allows for diverse and often challenging conversations around interpretation, community engagement, and the importance of creative works and handcrafts within local communities and in the history of both Western Kentucky and the United States at large.
My role at the Kentucky Museum was to process/reprocess, catalog, and digitize the current folk art holdings at the Kentucky Museum and help to provide a guiding interpretive strategy for the museum as it develops this part of its collection. Estimated at 750 objects, the collection is eclectic. It contains wood carvings, furniture, decorative works, white oak baskets, textiles, paintings, puppets, toys, and artistic works. By the time I left the Kentucky Museum for a curatorship in Arizona, we had made our way through around 650 objects, including a significant new donation to the museum of paintings and sculptures by a number of notable Kentucky folk artists such as Lonnie and Twyla Money, Ronald Cooper, and Joan Dance.
It was in this donation that the extreme complexities of creative output can be seen. Where the Moneys produce highly stylized, abstracted representations of animals like chickens, Cooper’s paintings and sculptures are inspired by his religious beliefs and often carry very direct messages related to those. Dance’s pieces, on the other hand, are stylized portraits of everyday scenes focused on African American women. Each of these artists bring the world around them, their experiences, their beliefs, and the aesthetic values that have grown out of their home communities into their creative works. Folk art is the kind of artistic representation that revels in the quirks of individuals and communities, and much of its allure lies in what it reveals about its creators and its context.
The contrasts I saw in these pieces at the Kentucky Museum were ones with which folklorists are very familiar: the informal aspects of culture, the things that exist in the cracks of communities and cultures (Hufford, 1999), and the things that people create as part of their everyday lives, reflecting aspects of themselves, their families, and their communities. As folklorists, we are often drawn by the places where aspects of culture meet, where parts disappear or become invisible as they labor to define the peoples that create and sustain them, the non-space or dark matter of communities1. In that context, it should come as no surprise that working with the Kentucky Museum’s growing folk art collection was instructive and engrossing.
From Handmade Harvest, the project turned to the premier component of the museum’s holdings: the quilt collection. At 336 objects, this collection consumed an entire year of the project. In this process, we evaluated the photography, provenance research, and general processing of the collection. We identified objects which had good existing photography that was re-edited to established standards and shot new photography of the remaining pieces. We also engaged in a comprehensive evaluation of the quilts themselves in partnership with the Term Assistant Curator for Quilts, Laurel Horton, who was hired to lend her expertise to this part of the project.
Over the course of four sessions, we physically worked through all the quilts, capturing Laurel’s commentary and evaluating each piece for its provenance state, condition, exhibitability, “wow factor,” and de-accession priorities. We began with the “crazy quilts,” which show little or no discernible pattern and were a significant portion of the collection, and then moved chronologically through the rest. In the three subsequent sessions, we would evaluate 90-120 quilts over three days. This process has refreshed the entirety of catalog entries for the quilts and has given the museum new insights into this part of the collection. Aside from the digitization of the quilts, the museum is also in the planning stages of an exhibit using the evaluation and updated provenance research to revitalize interpretation and to showcase the 30 finest quilts in the collection.
Working with Laurel on the quilt collection showed me both the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience required for analyzing and evaluating quilts. It also showed how much the weird and/or small details matter. We were looking at details as fine as the embroidery stitches used to join disparate pieces of fabric in a crazy quilt, the labels of top hat liners, the weave of homespun, the feedsacks used for backing material, the shifts in thread color within a quilted pattern, the tiny damages and repairs from, in many cases, over a century of use or display. These odd, miniscule, telltale features provided the clues that tell us where, when, and for what purpose a particular quilt was made. We combined our own analysis and genealogical research with information provided by donors to ensure the quilt’s story was told in the right way. In this process we utilized the finer details to construct a narrative that represents both the object and the object’s maker accurately and effectively. When museum professionals, scholars, or folklorists are willing to engage with the bizarre, the strange, or the curious, it becomes easier to propagate the stories and traditions that collections such as this represent.
In reflecting on the quilt evaluation and beginning to construct my own summation and report material, I found myself returning to these ideas and locating my interest in the most unconventional bits. Where my graduate assistant found her interest in the provenance work, in teasing out the family connections and identifying likely makers, I was intrigued by those particular parts of quilts, and other objects, that were crude or prosaic. I was drawn not to the most beautiful of the quilts, though I very much appreciate them, but to the ones that showed wear, that had curious repairs, unconventional additions, or that shifted the color and type of yarn used in the quilt ties or embroidery. I found myself appreciating the “Utility Quilts” in our catalog more than the detailed, fine quilting, stuffwork, or most luxurious fabrics. Instead, I liked the plainest, most “unattractive” quilts we examined. I recognize that part of this is my preference for works that combine high and low, that bring crudity and sublimity together; however, there is something in these singularly funky productions that speaks to me directly.
While living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my former partner and I had the opportunity the visit the American Visionary Art Museum on the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. The private, non-profit museum is filled with unique and provocative installations. The AVAM focuses on visionary art writ large, but with an emphasis on the spiritual, religious, self-taught, and spontaneous creation interpretations of the term2. As such, there are pieces that evoke extraterrestrials, angels, visions of gods, sculptural interpretations of the Tree of Life, and more. The three upper levels and several outbuildings center these works and put them into conversation with each other. As I wandered through this wonderland of the obscure, the beautiful, and the repellant, my own interpretations were scattered and unformed. When we made our way to the lowest level, it was clear that the institution’s primary storage spaces are located in the basement along with maintenance and custodial areas. There is, though, a long hallway open to the public with two smaller installations. I have no memory of one of these. The other, I will never forget.
This particular installation was a rather innocuous looking kiosk with roughly cut magazine letters, seemingly random pictures pasted in places, a large red button, and a sign inviting visitors to push the button. I do not recall the name of the piece nor the artist who put it together, but we each took our turn pushing the button. Upon depressing the large red rubber button, a noise was emitted that, despite the infinite variety in the natural world, every human will recognize. It was a loud, barking burst of sound. Upon the second push, there was a smaller sound, one that squeaked, and sighed, and faded out. A third press brought another loud noise but this time with a distinctly wet, squelching tone and a secondary blast of lesser volume — but no less moisture. The fourth press…well, I think you get the picture. In the basement floor of this museum of wonders, magic, surreality, and spirituality there was a literal fart machine where one could push that red button over, and over, and over, discovering each special, unique expulsion of gasses from within the vast nature of bodies in this world.
It is often at that place where the sublime and the absurd, the crude and the refined, the unblemished and the well-trod meet that folklorists find the things that titillate and excite. It is at this same place where museums find themselves arbitrating facets of cultural discourse. When we find the peculiar alluring and appreciate the off-putting, we are able to account for the variability of life. I have found my interests within these realms of work in the contrasts and juxtapositions that are present all around us. The life of an object is bound up in the minds that create and use it. This understanding is key to the work that we do as folklorists, an instinctive grasp of that which represents, delights, disgusts, repels, and attracts. If art were universally “beautiful,” it wouldn’t be representative. Folklife follows this same pattern.
At this point, I find myself looking at the interiors of ideas, examining the empty spaces within as the central structure of their beings. Of course, objects, ideas, and art forms do not grow in a vacuum. They develop around other things, shaping themselves to the contours and outlines of their home communities. It is at those points of inflection and overlap that folk art is produced and reproduced, and it is those creations to which both folklorists and museum professionals are drawn.
If, as folklorists and museum professionals, we can help to foster an understanding of the strange as familiar, to understand and appreciate those qualities that make them uncomfortable without stripping away their context or particularity, then perhaps we will have had a positive impact. Through these points of contact and examination, and through the process of raising up the mundane and setting it alongside the sublime, perhaps acceptance, rather than tolerance, can become a value that defines our communities.
The cracks in cultures or communities, those cracks where folklife thrives, are like scar tissue: as they repair, closing gaps or wounds, they create stronger flesh. So, too, does folklife help in creating stronger communities, more powerful senses of identity and relation. Critiques of the underlying assumptions that guide folklore as a discipline are incredibly valuable as the intellectual landscape adjusts and changes in response to new knowledge. Perhaps I play into an older model of what folklore is by spending so much time ruminating on the “weird” things folklorists study. I certainly participate in the exoticization of cultural artifacts by using this language, but it is the very nature of their oddity that makes them compelling. It is in the strange corners, the seemingly incongruous gaps, the puzzling crevices that we will continue to find the most aberrant — yet undoubtedly compelling — artifacts.
Jackson Medel is the Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the Sharlot Hall Museum. He studied folklore at the University of Missouri and has lived across the country pursuing arts and culture as his vocation. Jackson has been working in folklore research, public folklife, and museums since 2009. His passion for landscapes, the outdoors, and the ways human communities relate to them guides every aspect of his work.