Vestie Davis (American, 1903-1978)
Nathan’s Coney Island, 1971. Credit: John R. Glembin, courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
This Friday, “Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art” opens in the Milwaukee Art Museum. It’s an exploration of the museum’s folk art and self-taught art collection, which remains the largest of its kind in the country. Surprisingly, it’s also an exhibit about patriotism with a strong whiff of American independence showcased by the mere fact that these artists created beloved, statement-making pieces of art without formal training, academic, or particularly, European influence. For those unfamiliar with folk and self-taught art, this self-confidence can feel supremely refreshing.
The exhibit is also neatly divided into easily digestible groups that largely deal with common realities: religion, advertising, pets, patriotism, childhood games and more. Like the artists themselves, this exhibit is perfect for a viewer who doesn’t possess an art history degree – the subject matter is relateable and explicit, yet the forms are undeniably beautiful.
For frequent MAM-goers, there are some works you’ve certainly seen before, like “Rock Dog” by Edgar Tolson, a carved and painted limestone sculpture of a spotted dog. But the curators have pulled out a few rarely seen pieces, like a stunning 1883 quilt by Margaret Beattie, whose stitching and fabric selection produced a feminine quilt that tells a story of a young woman with a playful tenderness.
One of the most interesting sections of the exhibit is a recreation of an Independent Order of Odd Fellows meeting room. Similar to the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows were a 19th-Century fraternal group whose symbols, rituals and initiation devices have been well-preserved. It’s a little spooky, but like the rest of the wide-ranging exhibit, worth exploring.
The exhibit runs from Jan. 31-May 4.