The greenwoods of New York City

Hello from Brooklyn!

We arrived in New York yesterday to visit my son and his wife and the first place we visited was The Museum of American Folk Art.  Just up my street! Quite a good proportion of the artefacts in there are labelled “Artist unknown”. Putting aside the fact that these were almost all what I would call craft items and therefore made by craftsmen and women rather than artists, the exhibition was very inspirational.  My favourite, I think was a case of exotic fantasy animals made out of painted and decorated tin cans.  These had been hand made by a person(s) unknown and bought from a thrift store (in UK read charity shop).  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand, but the message is all these little 2 to 4 inch animals were very much hand made and asymetrical.  So next up at the museum was an amazing exhibition of quilts.

This one was a marriage quilt, prepared fora forthcoming marriage which unfortunately never happened, hence the lady, top right has no matching man panel at top left.  The elephant called Han e ble on the quilt, was a circus elephant which toured New York and the Hudson Valley at the time the quilt was being made.  It strikes me that in North American there is a stronger surviving link between the handicrafts of a couple of centuries ago and now, there were several quite recent quilts on show:

There must be hours and hours of hand work in these quilts, and they really are beautiful.  The important thing for me is that it is clear that they are made by hand and their liveliness comes from the lack of ‘perfection’ and from the skillful choice of colours and design.  Consider this one:

This is a “log cabin” design, not because it was for use in a log cabin, but because of the method of construction. The common feature was that the quilts were made for a useful purpose (although there were a couple of show ones which decorated a bed or sofa) and were there for craft products, not works of art.  There was a wonderful one made by a Methodist church sewing society and the individual panels were made by different women (and some men!) several panels were signed in a beautiful copperplate handwriting (another once common skill, now sadly rare).

It seems to me that in England we are in danger of losing a lot of these traditional handicrafts, or at least they have become less widespread.  Even knitting seems to be more or less marginalised now, whereas it was a very common skill not so long ago, my mother constantly had something on the go, and I remember some of the jumpers she knitted me with affection. There are many other hand crafts like that where their practice has waned.

Anyway, it gives me great pleasure to be able to pass on and encourage working with the hands, as I know how much satisfaction it brings people.  Last week a lady came on a half day course to learn skills to enable her to make rustic dividers for her garden, using materials growing there.  The skills were simple – sawing, sharpening a pole, pre-drilling holes for nailing, how to make a strong shape by bracing, and thinking about design.  She went away with hopefully enough memory of the techniques to remember, and as reminders a birch long low divider and a mini hurdle that she’s made (very good they looked too).  Just sorry I failed to get a photo!

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