Editor’s letter, July/August 2015

Editorial Staff Opinion

What has been lost… The only thing more American than sentimentalizing the past is our habit of discarding it. And so when it comes to the dolls shown in this issue, stunning examples of an African-American folk art, questions abound: who were their makers and for whom were they made? How can they be dated and where did they originate? So much has been lost, but the dolls survive thanks to Deborah Neff, who brought them together and has sent them into the world to ask questions that need to be answered. We don’t need to ask why so much African-American material culture has been mislaid. We know the answer to that. I am aware of it every time we publish research like Alyce Perry Englund’s article on two folk art desks, one made by William Howard, a former slave, and I ponder all that is out there waiting for the light.

What has been found… Our admiration for the folk art miniaturist Mary Way is deepened by Brian Ehrlich’s discovery that one of her finest works, a signed portrait of her cousin Charles Holt, is in fact a symbolic defense of Holt who was jailed for championing our constitutional freedoms. Way’s portrait opens a small window onto the dangers of free speech in the early days of the republic.

What inspires awe… We cannot fully account for the sources of inspiration at work in the multimedium outsider artists that the American Folk Art Museum has brought together in When the Curtain Never Comes Down, but we present five of them who should astonish, delight, and mystify us.

And admiration… The once thriving city of Worcester, Massachusetts, is back and its museum is too—with an exhibition of a fine private collection of folk art shown here along with a tour of the museum and a guide to the rest of the city’s many treasures. Up in the Bronx the New York Botanical Garden has done the seemingly impossible: it has made Frida Kahlo new again by going back to the horticultural roots of her art.

And food for thought… What often begins as the art of the folk gets commodified by the forces of mass production. And so hip-hop style, a folk efflorescence if ever there was one, devolved into the global bondage of Nike and Adidas. What sneakers stood for and stand for now is the theme of The Rise of Sneaker Culture at the Brooklyn Museum, ably considered by Jenny Florence.

And so forth… Finally, and I had to save this for last, we present a pathbreaking account of what I might call folk fetishism in Robert Peck’s article on the numerous brooches, lockets, rings and other receptacles containing locks of George Washington’s hair, more treasured in their day than a piece of the true cross and so numerous, it seems, that besides straining credulity we can only wonder that our first president was not as bald as our thirty-fourth.

You can’t say we aren’t having fun.