The superb “American Made” exhibition, on view through Sept. 19 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, could just as easily be titled “Making America.”
True, the 115 objects were made by self-taught American artists from the Revolutionary War to the Industrial Revolution. But as a group, these pieces tell a much larger story, a story of a young nation inventing its very identity.
After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, creating a unified image of the fledgling country to project back to Europe was of utmost importance, explains Stacy Hollander, chief curator for the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which loaned the pieces in the show.
“The Western world was looking to see: What was the United States? What was the democratic man?” Hollander says, as we weave through three galleries filled with objects made by potters, painters, blacksmiths and weavers. “These works contributed to answering those questions.”
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A massive iron weather vane with a phoenix-like aspect is thought to have come from Paul Revere’s foundry, based on metallurgical analysis. It bears witness to initial tussles over whether a phoenix, a Germanic golden eagle or the American bald eagle should be adopted on the country’s Great Seal.
Numerous portraits are included in the exhibition because more directly than any other art form, they had the ability to show the world how America and its untested, experimental new form of government was maturing and thriving, Hollander says.
In “Lady on Red Sofa,” the large scale of the work and subject’s elaborate dress and jewelry demonstrate material achievement and elevated taste, while a column in the background signals awareness of architecture.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, intricately hand-painted furniture; tiny paper figurines of horses and soldiers; love letters folded into intricate packets; and Pennsylvania German fraktur (elaborate calligraphy) underscore that self-taught artists in the burgeoning republic did not view art as distinct from functional objects.
“Some leading intellectuals of the 19th century wanted us to be competing in the world of art from the European perspective. They were dismayed because the majority of Americans were more interested in art that filled their own lives and homes with beauty and color and vibrancy,” Hollander says.
This is the first folk art exhibition at Crystal Bridges. It comes in the midst of a renaissance in craft and entrepreneurship, evidenced by the success of Maker Faire, now in its 11th year in the original Bay Area locale and its sixth year in Kansas City.
Today’s makers will find plenty of inspiration in the creations of their counterparts from two centuries ago.
The strong undercurrent of patriotism and politics in many of the artworks is timely, too, in a presidential election year, when the question, “Who are we as a nation?” inevitably resurfaces.
At the entrance to the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a spectacular wood-and-metal whirligig featuring an early incarnation of Uncle Sam riding a bicycle on a float with an American flag waving at the back.
Whirligigs, wind-animated sculptures that lack the practical purpose of a weather vane, are a quintessential American art form.
“They were probably known in Europe, but like quilts, they found their fullest expression in the United States,” Hollander says.
And when it comes to quilts, several extraordinary examples alone are worth the price of admission ($10; free for ages 18 and younger).
An exquisite 1848 jacquard coverlet ringed by a tree border — a hallmark of New York state quilts — lacks any visible signs of aging; it has never been shown before.
Another spectacular offering, a vibrant 7-foot embroidered silk quilt from the late 1800s, shows the outlines of the states and major rivers.
One German Mennonite quilt holds a tantalizing mystery: Made for the impending wedding of a member of a well-to-do farm family in Pennsylvania, the large quilt depicts myriad farmyard animals and activities in appliqued patches. Conservators noticed one patch had an ungainly shape, unlike any of the others. They carefully unstitched it, revealing the figure of a man underneath, then reattached the patch.
“There’s a secret, but we don’t know what it means,” Hollander says.
Early trades gave rise to distinct categories of what we now call folk art. Scrimshaw, for example: Sailors on whaling vessels fashioned keepsakes for loved ones out of the teeth of sperm whales, sometimes honing their skills over years at sea.
In the 1800s, before literacy was widespread, sculptural shop signs conveyed the nature of the business without using words. A large carved sheep, suspended overhead in the gallery, heralded a woolens shop; a giant molar a few yards away, the dentist.
Perhaps the most sensational piece in the show is what is thought to be the largest American weather vane, known as St. Tammany: a 9-foot-tall, gold-leaf-on-copper Indian chief with a bow and arrow. An accompanying photo shows the weather vane, fabricated around 1890, in its original location atop a fraternal lodge in East Branch, N.Y. The restored masterwork sports the mark of many American weather vanes: upward-trajectory bullet holes consistent with being shot at from street level.
Despite the beauty, skill and creativity that infuse these works, they were not considered art until the turn of the 20th century.
At that time, Hollander says, an artistic revolution was happening in Europe: the modern art movement. Europeans were looking toward their own folk art as a romanticized but authentic visual tradition that could be drawn upon.
“Modern artists in America were thinking, ‘Well, what’s my tradition? The nation isn’t that old. What is our artistic legacy that’s going to give validation to our modern impulses?’ And they discovered this art that had flourished for generations and generations, and they called it folk art. At that moment, they invented the field of folk art,” she says.
And so, this quintessentially American art dating back to the Pilgrims got its first museum recognition in 1932, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted a pivotal show called “American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900.”
As anyone who watches “Antiques Roadshow” or “American Pickers” can attest, the genre has remained popular with collectors ever since. With “American Made,” Crystal Bridges succeeds in revealing the extraordinary beauty in these ordinary household and utilitarian objects and the essential formative role they played in shaping our cultural identity.
“American Made” runs through Sept. 19 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Ark. Admission to the museum is free; admission to the “American Made” exhibit is $10; free for ages 18 and younger. The museum is open daily except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Also at Crystal Bridges
Permanent collection: Five centuries of works by American masters are displayed in chronological order in a series of stunning, light-filled spaces designed by architect Moshe Safdie, who also designed the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. Crystal Bridges rests in a wooded Ozark ravine that boasts 3.5 miles of sculpture and nature trails, natural springs and songbirds.
Frank Lloyd Wright house: The Bachman-Wilson House was moved from New Jersey to a spectacular site above a turquoise stream on the Crystal Bridges grounds. Admission to the house is free, but online or telephone reservations are required and should be made in advance; viewing times fill up quickly.
Eleven restaurant: High South cuisine made with local ingredients including stone-ground organic grits from nearby War Eagle Mill served in a soaring glass box that spans a body of water. Open for lunch daily except Tuesday and dinner Wednesday through Friday.
Where to eat, stay and play in Bentonville
Bentonville is a strange and wonderful mashup of small-town Americana and progressive hipsterness. The tax base that comes from being home to the nation’s largest retailer, Walmart, is evidenced in the town’s pretty parks, Disney-clean sidewalks and lush landscaping. Onto that canvas has exploded a food-art-wine scene that rivals Kansas City’s in every way except size.
21c Museum Hotel: With rooms starting around $175 per night, this is definitely not the Walmart of lodging, but it’s worth every penny, in my book. The luxury factor of the bedding, bathroom fixtures and pillow chocolates at night is on par with Las Vegas resorts, but the quality of the interior design and artworks in the room and throughout the hotel leaves even the Four Seasons in the dust.
My room had a life-size molded green plastic Emperor penguin next to a tufted cream-colored lounge seating group, and I lost my heart to a red-fringed throw pillow with a silk-screened donkey on the front. So, yeah, I’ll pay double what a Holiday Inn Express costs, especially for a single night on a weekend getaway.
Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, the museum area (basically the lower level, lobby and restaurant) is open 24 hours a day with free admission. The quantity and breadth of the collection is startling, from sculpture to video installations to light sculptures to a Plexiglas coffee table that contains an addictive interactive sand landscape with fan-generated “wind.” I spent an hour just on the lobby level after dinner one evening and could have stayed longer.
Museum of Native American History: This unassuming building in a residential neighborhood is one more stunning surprise in Bentonville. Magnificent artifacts, pottery and clothing divided into five time periods dating back to 14,000 years ago include a Winter Count buffalo hide that graphically tells the story of one long winter. The arrowhead displays, arranged by tribe with explanations about identifying features, are engrossing enough to spend hours with. Free admission. Open Monday through Saturday.
The Walmart Museum: Located inside Sam’s Walton’s original five-and-dime store on the town square, with his paneled, midcentury-modern-furnished office and his beloved Ford pickup truck, the museum is short on design and displays, but family and news photos and written accounts tell a riveting behind-the-scenes story of how Walmart went from small town to worldwide. An old-fashioned candy counter and the ice cream shop have a retro flair. Open daily.
Lawrence Plaza Park: A few blocks from the town square, this charming oasis has a walk-through splash fountain where kids and adults can cool off on hot days.
War Eagle Mill: A 40-minute scenic drive from Bentonville in neighboring Rogers, this historic mill grinds organic, non-GMO grains of all kinds, from whole wheat and rye to cornmeal and spelt. Open daily March through December. The Bean Palace Cafe upstairs serves killer pinto beans with ham hocks and cornbread.
Food trucks: Downtown Bentonville has a thriving food truck scene, with much of the action centered near the town square. Two terrific trucks have a semi-permanent location across from Lawrence Plaza Park and catty-corner from 21c Museum Hotel: Crepes Paulette and Priato Pizzeria, which also serves gelato. Both are open daily; hours vary, check before you go.
The Hive: The restaurant inside 21c Museum Hotel is a seamless extension of the hotel’s contemporary aesthetic, with large-scale original art dominating the walls in the open, high-ceilinged room. The High South cuisine is spectacular, flavorwise and on the plate. Chef Matthew McClure was a semifinalist for James Beard Award Best Chef: South. The service is effortlessly polished, and I had reverse sticker shock when presented with the check — I don’t think I’ve eaten and drunk that well for the price in Kansas City. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
The Pressroom: Terrific breakfast spot downtown, also serves lunch and dinner daily except Sunday, when the restaurant/coffee bar/craft cocktail bar closes at 3 p.m.
Tusk and American Brasserie Trotter: Craft cocktails, High South casual fare built on local fresh ingredients, just off the town square.