Asa Ames: New Discoveries

August 2009 | Sometime between 1849 and his death in 1851 a young carver named Asa Ames in Evans, Erie County, New York, decided to have his picture taken (Fig. 2). He opted for the daguerreotype process rather than a painted portrait, and he purchased a quarter-plate size though the composition he envisioned was complex for the small format. The plate itself is marked “scovills” for the firm that manufactured the coated copperplates used in the daguerreotype process from about 1839 to 1850, but there is no indication of the identity of the photographer or the studio where it was made.1 The carefully arranged image is at once occupational and autobiographical in nature, and there is a strangeness to the construct that intimates levels of meaning we can only guess at today. The precious cased plate descended in the family of Asa’s brother John Trowbridge Ames, and until recently, when the American Folk Art Museum in New York City opened the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work, was unknown outside that line of the family.2 

The daguerreotype has degraded to a coppery blue around the edges. Ames is shown sitting at the far left with a block of wood held between his knees. He is sculpting with a mallet and chisel, and a face is just beginning to emerge from the surrounding wood, a face eerily like his own: the artist carving a self-portrait. Behind him leans a violoncello, and next to him, atop the block of wood, stands a full-length carving of a naked child, modestly swathed with an actual scarf and holding what appears to be a tuning fork in his chubby hand. To the right of the child are two previously unknown busts that may have been made by Ames, each with a draped cloth carved around the bottom, that appear to float on a carpet of figured cloth suspended over the head of an unidentified man in the lower right corner. Over their heads hovers a disembodied hand holding a book, a carving that descended with the daguerreotype (Fig. 6). In the bust of the young woman, the subject has long, glossy, wavy black hair that is unlike the treatment of hair in any of the known carvings by Ames, thus provoking the question whether the bust had a wig, or even whether it is a real person posed as a carving. The man in the lower right corner gazes up at the artist with an enigmatic expression on his aquiline face; his body is cut off by the limits of the metal plate. The entire composition suggests a montage of separate images that have been assembled into a single frame, but it is more likely that the image was carefully staged to create the mysterious effects.3

When this image was taken, the photographic medium was just beginning to be exploited as a tool for capturing the wispy ether of the spirit world. It was at this moment that the Fox sisters—Catherine or Kate (1836–1892), Leah (1814–1891), and Margaret or Maggie (1833–1892)—were gaining celebrity in Rochester, New York, and beyond for their purported communion with this world through rappings and knockings, and it can be conjectured that Ames himself was open-minded about such alternative ideas and events. In 1850 he was living in the household of Dr. Harvey B. Marvin (1806–1870), a medical practitioner and homeopath who was planning to open a water-cure clinic in Evans. That same year the Fowler brothers, major proponents of phrenology and radical social reforms, had published a slim volume extolling the power of hydropathy to cure and prevent consumption, a death sentence in the days before the discovery of antibiotics.4 Ames himself died of consumption soon after at the age of twenty-seven years, seven months, and seven days. It is possible that in sitting for the daguerreotype he was consciously composing an image to leave for posterity, one that established his stature as an artist and included details of a personal moment, the significance of which is now lost to time. His gravestone in Evans’s Pioneer Cemetery bears the triangular symbol of the fraternal organization Sons of Temperance, which serendipitously had funeral benefits, and an inscription that ends with lines from a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) from Psalm 90:

Death, like an overflowing stream,
Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream,
An empty tale, a morning flower,
Cut down and withered in an hour.5

In 1982 Jack T. Ericson identified twelve carvings signed by or attributed to Ames in his seminal article on him in The Magazine Antiques.6 Based on family remembrances of Ames’s identified subjects, Ericson concluded that the artist worked within a close network of relatives, friends, and neighbors, though the relationships were not entirely understood at the time. Ames’s circle has grown closer and more intimate as research has revealed more about the artist, his family, and the people he captured so beautifully and tellingly in his carvings.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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