In photo: “Annunciation” is a scripture painting from 1742 that shows the archangel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her about Jesus’ birth.
When we think of 18th- and 19th-century homes, the terms “modest” and “plain” might come to mind.
But the items populating the gallery at the Schenectady County Historical Society prove that wasn’t always the case.
“Handcrafted: The Folk and Their Art,” an exhibition that opened last weekend, is packed with rare paintings and signs, intricate quilts and even a heart-shaped waffle iron, all featured in homes and businesses around the region, and created by untrained artists.
Curated by Susanna Fout, exhibitions and collections manager at the Historical Society, and Marilyn Sassi, a folk art professor at SUNY Schenectady County Community College, the exhibit highlights the depth and breadth of the Society’s collection.
“What surprised me was just how much we have in terms of [the] diversity of objects. Folk artists worked in all kinds of different mediums [and] forms, and they create[d] everything from utilitarian objects, like waffle irons and boot scrapers, to dolls. So there’s such a variety here and it’s not just the paintings, not just the furniture. It’s everything in between,” Fout said.
Many of the pieces on display have been a part of the collection for years, though they’ve rarely been shown, if ever.
One rare piece is a scripture painting from 1742 that shows the archangel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her about Jesus’ birth. It’s a take on an engraving from the Keur Bible of 1741.
“There’s only 40 known scripture paintings of this time period and area. Along with portraits, itinerant artists would also create scripture paintings based on Dutch Bibles or other mezzotints at the time. There’s just not very many that survived to this day. So this is a pretty important piece,” Fout said.
Nearby, a few engraved whale teeth, or scrimshaws, are featured. Each has a detailed scene, and one depicts a figure riding a winged horse.
Most people don’t associate the whaling industry with upstate or Central New York, but according to Fout, many who worked in the industry would eventually settle down here.
The exhibition also includes the original sign for the Jacob Mabee Inn, which is now known as the Mabee Farm Historic Site, which is owned by the Historical Society.
“I love the Jacob Mabee Inn sign. That’s a huge one for us not only because of the artwork that’s featured on it, but also just the fact that we actually still have the inn standing. It’s an excellent example in itself of a tavern sign, especially one from that period, 1790. That we have the actual house with it is pretty incredible,” Fout said.
The quilted pieces are also impressive, especially when it comes to their size. Several quilts, made by women, hang from the walls, featuring embroidery work and careful stitching.
“We often think of these artists as men, but women were huge contributors to folk art as well. Women in the early 1700s, especially in a rural community like this, were just as important as men were in terms of providing for the family. … Once the Industrial Revolution comes along, some of the first industries that are taken away from the home are these things that women are doing: sewing, creating cloth, canning and preserving of food,” Fout said.
Interestingly, that led to a golden age of folk art.
“They really fight back against that industrialization, so their skills become even more important to them in terms of self-identity. You see some really wonderful works coming out in the 1830s … through the 1850s,” Fout said.
Throughout “Handcrafted,” Fout and Sassi have focused on the question of why people created these objects rather than how.
It feels like a much more relevant question, especially for pieces such as “Neptune’s Float.” The miniature model is made of a hodgepodge of shells, clay, aluminum and other materials, all of which come together to depict Neptune riding atop a float being pulled by two horses and a black figure.
It was made in 1868 for the True Blue parade, organized by the Ancient and Mystic Order of the True Blues, an eccentric fraternity that sought to promote business and civic pride in Schenectady. However, looking at historical records, it seems as though the group mostly put on parades.
The miniature one that’s included in the exhibition is a testament to the sometimes odd and sometimes superb creativity of folk artists from this area.
“Handcrafted” will be open at the Schenectady County Historical Society through November. For more information, visit schenectadyhistorical.org.