Category Archives: American folk art

Hite/KMAC Summer Fellow Explores the Permanent Collection

By Hunter Kissel, Hite/KMAC Curatorial Fellow for Summer 2015

Hunter has completed his first year in graduate school pursing a dual Master in Public Administration/Master of Arts in Critical and Curatorial Studies at the Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville; he is a native Louisvillian.

I received my undergraduate degree from Transylvania University in Studio Art last May and now am pursuing a Master degree in Critical and Curatorial Studies at the Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville. The shift from amateur art-maker to aspiring exhibition producer has provided its share of challenges, namely in the language and art historical methods I now use. My personal appetite for participation in the broader arts community, however, has remained the same. The school year ended in the early weeks of May, and I began researching summer opportunities. I was soon offered a fellowship at KMAC.

Denzil Goodpaster. Selected works.
Denzil Goodpaster. Selected works.

As part of the Fellowship, I was given the chance to use KMAC’s permanent collection to display a selection of works in their Brown Forman Gallery. Director Aldy Milliken and Associate Curator Joey Yates often use the summer months to present works from the collection in a gallery setting, and this was sure to be a great chance to practice some of the curatorial methods I had been learning in school. KMAC begins planning their exhibitions as far as two years out in some cases, so completing the show in little over one month seemed like a tall order.

KMAC’s permanent collection contains works by acclaimed regional and national folk artists. Artists from Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia are heavily represented in the collection, and as a result themes of economic agriculture, religion, American identity, and wildlife are all very present. After browsing the catalogue of KMAC’s permanent collection and inspecting some of these artworks in person, I was able to narrow down my selection for the exhibition to about twenty pieces. I selected many of these Appalachian artists as well as some contemporary local artists working in glass, photography, or patchwork.

The selection process was not an easy one. While many of these artworks deserve to be shown, a number of constraints surfaced and I was unable to include objects I really admire. My conversations with Joey Yates were emphasized with the notion that “less is more.” The idea of a cluttered gallery made us uneasy, and subsequently space had to be compromised in order to include a diversity of artists as well as multiple works by the same artist when their breadth required it. Each object needed “room to breathe” (as the popular saying goes), and my selections were heavily influenced by the gallery space itself.

Marvin Finn, Crane 1980
Marvin Finn, Crane 1980

The final title of the exhibition was simple—Highlights from the Permanent Collection. There was no need to contextualize these works. The collection speaks for itself. The final display includes artists like Earnest Patton, one of the most renowned artists in KMAC’s collection, who carves human figures with precision and clean technique. His depiction of Adam and Eve is as topical as that of his mermaid or woman in a swimsuit. Minnie Adkins’ use of a fox motif translates fluidly from woodcarving to quilt, demonstrating the artist’s ability to execute in a variety of mediums. Carl McKenzie’s figures stand as anomalies, distanced from the comparable work produced by Patton, Denzil Goodpaster, and Junior Lewis. His splotched Lady Liberty and Red Cross Nurse are vibrant takes on popular subjects. Finally, Marvin Finn and his flock of familiar birds are at hand within KMAC’s collection.

The resulting exhibition advocates for the importance of collecting. Under Milliken and Yates, KMAC is transforming from an artist-represented gallery into an archival museum. KMAC’s current collection is a solid foundation for a more expansive holding of artworks. Highlights marks a checkpoint for an evolving institution.

Highlights from the Permanent Collection, curated by Hunter Kissel, will be on display in the Brown Forman Gallery at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft until mid-September. To see more from the exhibition, visit http://www.kmacmuseum.org. 

Take Me to the River

Image: Al Gorman, “Alien Ballet” from the blog post Top Secret Report: Proof of Extraterrestrials March 3, 2013 by artistatexit0.

The Ohio River flows for more than 600 miles across Kentucky’s northern border creating a watercourse through the bordering states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The confluence of commerce and community building that has taken place along the banks of the Ohio River for centuries is not unlike the development of societies around similar river networks throughout the world. These densely populated settlements depend on these rivers for nearly every basic need. For generations their identities have been shaped by the geological and environmental history of the river. Our evolving relationships to science, industry and religion have been heavily influenced by river societies since the beginning of human civilization.

These ideas intermingle in Andrew Underwood’s work The River, 2013, currently on view in the 7 Borders exhibition. Focusing on the motifs of fertility, time, and spirituality Underwood has woven, painted, photographed, collected, assembled and displayed a complete narrative of the history of the Ohio River from the prehistoric era to Native American cultures and into the Industrial age of steamboats. Set into a tailor made system of shelves Underwood incorporates the theme of fertility, most notably with an embroidered mother figure, but also through different iterations of the vessel, drawing connections between a Cherokee Bowl and photos of the century old steamboat the Belle of Louisville. With comparisons between the Ohio River, the Ganges River and The River Jordan he reminds us that cultures have long used the river for spiritual purposes, both for baptisms and burials.

Andrew Douglas Underwood
The River, 2013, Andrew Douglas Underwood

Al Gorman began his project of documenting the Ohio River in 2003 and in 2009 he was able to take this process global with the start of his blog artistatexit0.wordpress.com. A table placed within the 7 Borders exhibit contains a monitor with the blog along with a few of Gorman’s driftwood sculptures. Visitors of the website can follow his almost daily excursions to the Falls of the Ohio State Park located off of Interstate 65 in Jeffersonville, IN at Exit 0. Through storytelling and photography his documentation of found trash and driftwood has proven to be inexhaustible. The blog contains pages and pages of driftwood sculptures assembled on site by the artist and trash that Gorman has collected and classified into categories such as Balls of the Ohio, Kentucky Lucky Ducky Collection and Plastic Bottle Color Spectrum to name a few. It’s a three-part collusion with the artist, the people who have lost or thrown these objects away and with nature, which in this case happens to be a series of 390-million-year-old fossil beds. He raises concerns about our lack of knowledge or interest in where our garbage ends up, particularly with our abundant use of plastic.

Al Gorman, 7 Borders Installation.
Al Gorman, 7 Borders Installation.

Greg Stimac’s photograph Ancient Colony of Horse-Thieves, Counterfeiters and Robbers captures the mysterious and menacing history of a cave located on the banks of the Ohio River in Hardin County, Illinois. The site was known to be a hideout for notorious river pirates, highwaymen, serial killers and civil war bandits. Better known as Cave-In Rock it was used by Native Americans for thou­sands of years before the 1790s when it became a well-known stronghold for a gang of bandits led by Gregory Mason. They would prey upon the ferryboats carrying farm produce down the river from Kentucky, Ohio, and Southern Indiana. Stimac often investigates cultural sites that contain unique aspects of American History. His work in the 7 Borders exhibition is part a photo series of cave entrances located throughout the Midwest. Each one of these caves is associated with a famous American criminal or crime scene.

Greg Stimac Ancient Colony of Horse-Thieves, Counterfeiters and Robbers, 2009
Greg Stimac, Ancient Colony of Horse-Thieves, Counterfeiters and Robbers, 2009

C.C. Coyle and the Parables of America

In The Passing of Weary Souls (pictured above), 1921, a pair of black boots, set in stride, dominate the image. The boots are animated, but no person wears them. As though anyone might be walking in those shoes across the landscape, this painting is about a journey. Emerging from the storage of the collection of Berea College to the walls of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, C.C. Coyle’s paintings are a moral journey through American life as told by a self-taught Kentucky country man.

Coyle’s paintings tell the stories of America through the land, family, history, and imagination. In many paintings, Coyle depicts the quintessential scenes of the American landscape. The expertly composed Yosemite, Bridal Veil, Nevada, and Vernal Falls, 1935, depicts the four great falls of Yosemite National Park. He also painted the famed Mariposa giant sequoia tree of southern Yosemite and Red Rock Canyon of the Painted Desert. During the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, Americans gained access to and protected these national treasures through the establishment of National Parks. Coyle painted these scenes in person, and occasionally through photographs. His landscape paintings echo the words of famed environmental advocate John Muir (1838-1914), whose tireless work led to the protection of the Sierra Nevada, when he stated in Yosemite, 1912, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

The falls of Yosemite appear again in the grand painting entitled The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Rules the World, 1935. This painting best illustrates Coyle’s sense of narrative as parable. Like a moral story, the painting is an illustration of the American dream and the value of motherhood. Coyle provides a rich description of this painting in his diary, stating, “I am giving this picture to the public believing that every great man or woman had for their background the training of a good mother. It has been said that many of our great men owe their crown of glory to a good wife. That takes us right back to the mother again. This wife got her training from a good mother. Of course we must make some allowance for a fertile brain; even a fertile brain can be ruined if it does not get the proper training and support.” Thus, the good mother rests near a cabin, representing a schoolhouse, surrounded by her four children at various stages of need and independence. It is clear that her good deeds lead great men to the innovations of technology and the pages of history contained on the right side of the canvas, from aircrafts and railroads, to memorials and the White House. A sweeping epic of generations, the story unravels across the canvas, floating on dream-like clouds.

C.C. Coyle, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World, 1935.
C.C. Coyle, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World, 1935.

In all of these paintings, and in the words of Coyle’s diary, there is an earnesty to his call for moral fortitude and the American spirit. Although Coyle might be considered a folk artist because he was not traditionally trained, his deliberately planned, studied, carefully executed and sophisticated painting style reveals a body of work that is far more complex and cohesive than might be imagined for a naïve artist. While some research has been done on the biography and interpretation of his works, there is great potential to reveal a rich tapestry of American life.

       -Eileen Yanoviak has been selected by KMAC as the incoming University of Louisville Hite Art Institute Fellow for 2013-2014.

#whoiscccoyle

The life story of Carlos Cortez Coyle is so similar to the many Americans that lived during the Great Depression that it’s hardly newsworthy. His stories of financial and emotional trauma during this time are not what make him unique. But what does separate Coyle and arouses public attention are his 24 paintings that are on exhibit at KMAC.  This is just a small sampling of his 82 piece collection stored at Berea College in eastern Kentucky. Compositions consisting of Kentucky and California landscapes, humorous morality tales, mystical visions and most importantly a visual diary of a man concerned with leaving a lasting heritage. This special research exhibition is presented in order to lay the groundwork of including him among the names of Modern self-taught artists and to begin answering the question of Who Is C.C. Coyle?

Coyle spent the early part of his life in Dreyfus, Kentucky and in 1889 he briefly attended Berea Foundation School (now Berea College) where he was introduced to Appalachian arts and crafts. Some of his early drawings of birds, plumes, feathers and goddesses can be found in an old school diary that Berea College now possesses. Coyle left Berea before graduating for reasons unknown and moved to Florida, then Canada and eventually to San Francisco where in 1929, at the age of 60, Coyle took up oil painting and completed over a hundred works in just thirteen years.

In 1942, prompted by his failing health, Coyle paid to ship four crates from San Francisco to Berea College in Kentucky containing 47 paintings, 35 drawings and an illustrative diary of his work. He wrote a letter to the college explaining his shipment of works and the intention “to give my art to the land of my birth where I played and spent most of my youth.” Berea staff were unsure as to what to do with this unexpected collection and the works were left crated and put into storage where they remained with the occasional piece being pulled from time to time until 1960 when art professor Thomas Fern discovered the collection and held Coyle’s first solo exhibition. The exhibit received some local public recognition from the Louisville Courier Journal’s art editor William Mootz who wrote that Coyle “may some day rank as an important American primitive.” Berea Art Department staff found Coyle who at 88 was suffering from blindness and residing in Leesburg, FL. He wrote a letter of thanks to the school for showing his work in the gallery. Carlos Cortez Coyle died two years later in 1962. He was 90.

The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft presents the work of C.C. Coyle to be viewed in the larger context of exceptional naïve artists and to recognize his place in Kentucky’s art history.

Image: Carlos Cortez Coyle, Age 65 and 22. 1936, oil on canvas, 44 x 36 in. Photo: Geoffrey Carr