There are certain works of folk art that, like folk music, are valuable for their creators’ power of expression rather than their technical skill. That is the message of The Spirit of Nova Scotia: Traditional Decorative Folk Art 1780-1930, an exhibition of 300 artifacts which opened two weeks ago in Saskatoon’s Mendel Gallery. The show will tour to Winnipeg, Windsor, Calgary, Victoria, Toronto and Charlottetown and will become the inaugural exhibition of the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, opening in September,
1987. Curated by Halifaxbased arts journalist and academic Richard Henning Field,
Spirit is an ambitious testimony to the beauty of useful things. Examples include a 1778 hand-drawn map of Halifax colored in elegant shades of pastel and 17 sleekly sculpted 1930s decoy ducks with hunters’ shot embedded in the wood. With its 150-year span, the show convincingly demonstrates the vitality of maritime folk culture.
Field, a collector who owns almost 400 pieces, is an advocate of the populist view of history: it is the common people who ultimately shape human destiny. Said Field: “There is a misconception that ordinary people lived boring, colorless lives. That is bunk. Everything in The Spirit of Nova Scotia disproves that notion.” Scores of objects
in the exhibition underline his point. A 19th-century shelf created to hold religious relics bears such elaborate curlicues that it resembles a model gingerbread house. An early 20th-century painting of a five-masted ship skimming across a froth of water includes carefully detailed ant-sized crew members. The border of a mat hooked by
Florence Lantz of Lunenburg County in 1924 features an inventory of such everyday objects as an anchor, a flag, an axe and an umbrella.
One of the peculiar characteristics of folk art is that it is often most success-
ful when it is least technically ambitious. The most appealing portraits in The Spirit of Nova Scotia are often the most crudely painted. An anonymous 1832 picture of Rev. John Payzant lacks perspective and a sense of volume. Worse, Payzant is grimacing; according to the curator, he was ashamed of his wooden teeth. Still, the portait has a cranky, irresistible charm.
Despite its delights, the exhibition depends too much on history, too little on art. Indeed, a main deficiency of The Spirit of Nova Scotia is that it emphasizes such functional objects as quilts and wall hangings, downplaying the finer arts. As a result, the exhibition takes on the hybrid look of an academic display crossed with a crafts fair.
5 But the show’s best work æ overshadows that shortcom^ ing. An 1856 portrait of Sarah § Elizabeth Eisenhauer gathers £ together everything that rec| ommends folk art’s finest x qualities: honesty, sensitivity g and unpretentiousness. With g her elegant, slightly Oriental ÍJ face, she conjures up the work 5 of 20th-century decorative masters. The artist has communicated such delicacy and intelligence that it makes those who underestimate folk art seem no better than meanspirited.
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