Monday, April 18, 2011

Paint, Pattern & People: Exhibit

The best way I can describe the work in the gallery at Winterthur that displays the 18th-century southeastern Pennsylvania furniture from the Paint, Pattern & People book is this: the pieces simply glow.

The combination of the lively painted surfaces, gallery colors, wall hung paintings and deep, rich tones of the various woods make this collection a warm and vibrant experience.

There is nothing that compares to seeing these pieces in person. While the photography in the book is wonderful, a two-dimensional image cannot convey the full impact of the actual work.

Granted, this is my favorite time period and these are pieces from the area in the U.S. that I love most, but I'm quite sure that any woodworker can appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that built them.

The fact that you can get so close to the furniture that you can look beneath and behind some of them means discovering things such as the cross-wedged through-tenons in a Moravian chair seat; the points made by compasses as they scribed arcs for line and berry spice boxes; pencil lines that sketched the initial designs for painted chests; and table tops rubbed smooth and shiny by a thousand hands.

All the marks left on the furniture give us a window through which we can imagine the time when they were made and used. The worn corners on the feet of a chest-over-drawers brings to mind an image of a woman sweeping the wood floor beside it while children rough-house a bit too energetically in its vicinity.

By following the lines of a carved pediment on a high chest of drawers, we can envision the movement of the woodworker's hand as he slides a gouge along the rim. The slight inconsistencies in the flow of the curve confirms that it was made by hand; the subtle imperfections forever capture the marks of the craftsman who made them.

As woodworkers, we know what tools were used to make various cuts, and we instinctively "build" the piece as we study the tool marks. So this exhibit becomes an interactive one for us.

One thing that struck me about many of the pieces is the attention to detail, even in the smallest elements. A tiny door within the gallery of a writing desk displays delicate, yet complex moulding. A small box showcases row upon row of detailed inlay made from hundreds of pieces of contrasting wood.

Even the iron work is artistic. While these country craftsmen were influenced by their big city counterparts and brought with them styles of ornament from the countries from which they emigrated, it seems evident that they applied their own creativity to the mix, making each piece one-of-a-kind.

The items in this collection are the very finest I've seen from this era and region. The colors are so bright as to look newly-painted, both on the furniture and in the framed illustrations of the region.

For centuries, these pieces absorbed and reflected the lives of the people who made and owned them. Perhaps that's why they seem to have so much personality and soul.

Our projects are part of us. The things we build today will document details of our lives and leave future woodworkers to wonder about us. We are part of a continuum.  And these 18th-century pieces remind us to build something worthy of bearing witness to our history.

Please note that photography is not permitted in this exhibit. I'd like to thank the Winterthur Museum for allowing me to photograph these marvelous pieces.


Jeremy Kriewaldt (Muddleheaded WW) said...

Thanks for sharing these pictures and thoughts with us.

The German influence on the PA works is quite striking and reminds me of the Barossa Valley, South Australia works of German migrants in the nineteenth century.

There is something refreshingly 'open' about the decoration and the designs of these works that is a relief from some of the 'stitched up' elements of the Chippendale/Hepplewhite/Sheraton etc design books which the English had as their inspiration and source.

Even when there was a high degree of ornamentation in the design books, there is a "buttoned up" element that never seems as rooted in the real world as the "folk" products of less sophisticated craftsmen reflecting a different cultural background in a new country.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the photos. I love going to Winterthur. I have and can spend all day there. the pictures are great and your website has changed some since the last time I visited. keep up the great work. Michele is waiting to take some painting class and she will enjoy these pictures. thanks again,

Anonymous said...

I think I found a place to take the kids for a small road trip. Thanks again Kari.


Stephen Shepherd said...

Excellent, back in 1977 I got a cooks tour of the gallery and stepped into the Dominy workshop they have a wonderful collection.


Eric said...

Oh, to have been there while these pieces were being made.
I bet you wouldn't be able to NOT learn a lot from these craftsman.
This is a trip which is long over due for me.
Thanks Kari, as always a great article and pictures.

Kari Hultman said...

Well said, Jeremy. I thought about you and the Barossa folks when we visited this exhibit.

Pete, this was our third visit to the museum and the first time we visited the gardens, which were incredible. We're taking my Mom and aunt there in a few weeks to see the azaleas in bloom.

Jonathan, if you take your kids, you must also visit the enchanted garden (for kids) on the grounds. There is a very cool stone and wood cottage with kid-size medieval chairs and a people-size birds' nest, among other fun things.

Stephen, the Dominy workshop is very cool indeed.

Eric, the toughest part of visiting the exhibit is not being to lay your hands on the furniture. It just begs to be touched.

tom8021 said...

I did one of those up close and personal tours a few years back. I live on the West Coast, so I wanted to make the most of the trip. I had just taken a class in the history of furniture and was well primed for the tour. My wife and I were the only ones on the tour, so the docent tailored it to my interests. What a special memory and an incredible collection. I hope to go back some day. said...

Kari, have you noticed that many digital artists like yourself are quite smitten with "folksy" artwork?

You spend all day creating crisp, dead-straight lines, perfect mathematically-defined offsets and complex geometrically-generated curves.

Removed from the monitor, though, nothing gives you more pleasure than studying a hand-painted tulip leaf that displays all the characteristics of being created by a hand free of constraints.

Is it a dichotomy, or just another example of opposite attractions?