By Esther Pearl Watson
I first realized that the flying saucers my dad built during my childhood were an art form when I came across Douglas Curran’s book In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space, which exposed me to a wide range of individuals from the United States and Canada who built spaceships that looked like my father’s constructions. Curran’s photographs documented all shapes and sizes of the metal ships and their builders. My father saw his flying saucers as working prototypes for the future of transportation, but to me they were a creative vision. Folk art has always felt like the language of my heritage.
I began working in the vernacular of memory paintings in 2003. My family kept few photos of the saucers my dad built, as we moved often. Painting from memory is challenging because memory is fallible. I would paint the same house in Sachse, Texas, over and over again, using different tints of pink or depicting different arrangements of windows. There was no reference to correct my own distorted memory because that house was torn down to make room for tract homes. My own painting practice helped me understand how the childhood farm paintings by Velox Ward, for example, became idealized versions of a less-than-ideal upbringing.
My paintings are often the opposite of idealistic childhoods found in the memory paintings of artists like Fannie Lou Spelce. Spelce was a retired cardiovascular nurse. Her themes included country fairs, children playing games, and local harvest festivals. Like the demands of her job, her paintings required her to pay careful attention to the smallest details—objects are laid out in an organized fashion at the farm stand, and the viewer can see each figure engaged in specific activities at the country fair.
Not long after I became interested in Spelce’s work, I learned about Texas memory painters through the Webb Gallery in Waxahatchie. I loved looking at the melted taffy Texas landscapes of Reverend Jonnie Swearingen’s oil paintings of farm work. Eddie Arning's oil pastels remind me of quilt appliques. His blocky figures stand on a street corner or work with animals on the farm. Someone once told me my paintings looked like they could be quilted. My great-grandmother and namesake, Pearl, was an accomplished quilter. Inspired by her handiwork, I enlarged a drawing and quilted a scene of my dad’s flying saucer on fire in the cow pasture. When I was done, I didn’t know what to do with the quilt. It felt odd to sit on the couch covered with a quilted memory.
My grandparents and I drove through Blanket, Texas, many times on our way to the roller-skating rink in Brownwood. I recognized the land and the people in H. O. Kelly’s painting of the area. Years later, I would see similar stories in folk art found in Cecilia Steinfeldt’s book, Texas Folk Art: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Southwestern Tradition. There is something electrifying in learning about memory painters from my home state who captured the gray bark of pecan trees and the dried summer grass that is so rooted in my own memory.
My work has always been about telling stories, transporting the viewer through the patchwork fields and neglected small towns of my Texas childhood. Growing up with an eccentric father, whose obsession with building spaceships out of scrap metal in the backyard often led to disastrous results, forced our family to move again and again. We were always one step ahead of trouble—setting the field on fire with the careless use of an acetylene torch or finding that our TV had been pawned for a sheet of aluminum were not uncommon experiences for us. I paint these difficult memories because life is not ideal. The Texas memory painters didn’t always have simple or easy lives, which can be seen if you pay careful attention to the details of their dusty farm scenes and simple gatherings. Memory painters capture more than personal memories—together their work becomes a shared history, a story of Texas and its people.
The Amon Carter is fortunate to have some great volunteers who enthusiastically share our mission: to connect people to great American art. Hundreds of hours are spent each year by library volunteers and members of our docent corps on preparing and providing information that benefits all of our visitors. It was a pleasure to honor our most recent Docent Emeritus, Vivian Spraberry, for 25 years of service to the museum.
Come to the museum and share in the fun! Tours featuring highlights from the permanent collection take place Thursday through Sunday at 2 p.m. and begin at the Information Desk. No reservations are required.
Complementing the museum’s art collection, the research library offers an extensive range of materials on American art, photography, and history from the early nineteenth century to the present. The library is open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays through May.
Admission to the museum and library is always free.
One of the earliest businessmen in Fort Worth, Julian Feild [sic] opened the first gristmill on the Trinity in 1856. He was also the first postmaster in the city. After this first gristmill floundered, he later opened a more successful mill near what was to become Mansfield. The research library preserves and makes available an early accounting book kept by Feild, with the first entry dated January 1, 1856. It would appear that most of the entries date from that year, though there are entries as late as 1869. As you handle this book, you're instantly taken you back in time, and you find yourself imagining what it must have been like sitting in front of this document, recording what were the mundane transactions of the day, not realizing their captivating power over 150 years later. This document preserves some of the earliest commercial activity in Fort Worth and establishes the importance of Feild as an influential entrepreneur. Read more about Julian Feild in the Handbook of Texas Online and in the Fort Worth History document available on the city's website.
Last week, I found myself challenged with the task of speaking to our astute docents on the subject of American landscape. The prospect of saying anything overarching was daunting, as the story of landscape and the American painting tradition is as broad and vast as the mountain vistas depicted by American artists.
I had just finished writing and speaking about contemporary artist Jenny Holzer and the aphorisms, or truisms as she calls them, that she broadcasts via giant walls of light on the surfaces of great buildings, carves indelibly into granite, or silk-screens onto large canvases. Perhaps I was influenced by my study of Holzer to share with the docents short, digestible truths of my own invention that seem to reasonably summarize the American landscape artist’s approach.
I began the formulation of my truism list by revisiting William Cullen Bryant’s poetic advice to his buddy Thomas Cole, the symbolic forefather of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting. In his 1829 sonnet To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe, Bryant characterizes Europe as having “everywhere the trace of men.” He directs Cole’s attention to the American landscape, our untouched wilderness, as the defining characteristic of our fledgling nation, reminding the artist to revel in European scenes while keeping “that earlier, wilder image bright.” Put another way: Unspoiled nature was an expression of cultural and national identity.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Hunter's Return, 1845, oil on canvas
What America had to offer in those days that seemed unique was the sublimity of pristine nature, and landscape painting provided one manner of expressing that identity. And so, a little bit inspired by Holzer’s truisms, I showed the docents a slide of my own proclamations based on aspects of the landscape works in our collection:
OUR LANDSCAPE DEFINES US
CAPTURE IT BEFORE IT’S GONE—or if there have been intrusions, eliminate the traces of human intervention.
ART LEADS TO PRESERVATION
WHEN CIVILIZATION INTRUDES, GO FARTHER AFIELD—WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CONTINENT
If you are a landscape artist and your subject matter is disappearing to industry and the march of civilization, show it as it was, with a foreboding sense of what’s to come. Go farther west to find the limits of so-called progress. If technology and tourism have already gotten there, paint them out. See if you can aid in preservation by alluding to the future destruction. Capture it all before it disappears. And, when you have run out of American exotic locales, travel abroad.
This week, when I move forward chronologically, my plan is to add the following to the truism list:
SEEK REFUGE FROM THE STRAINS OF MODERN LIFE. GO TO THE SHORE. HAVE A PICNIC. SEEK ARTIST COLONIES. GO WEST.
A LANDSCAPE PAINTING CAN BE ABOUT MORE THAN NATURAL SPLENDOR, IT CAN BE AN URBAN LANDSCAPE OR AN INDUSTRIAL ONE. THERE’S BEAUTY IN THOSE, TOO.
TURN TO ABSTRACTION
CHRONICLE OUR OWN DESTRUCTION
Skeet McAuley (b. 1951), Untitled, from the Native America Series, 1984-86, dye destruction print
Though the proclamations may not prove accurate in all cases, putting them in front of our docents seems as good a way as any to connect to the rich holdings of American views we have here at the Amon Carter.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
The Amon Carter is fortunate to have a wonderful corps of docents who work with visitors to the museum by giving regularly scheduled tours, sharing information at the Art Carts, and facilitating special tours. Several of our docents were in fine form Friday night as the museum celebrated the first day of spring with our members at the Spring Fling.
Come on by and take a tour of our permanent collection. Public tours take place at 2:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and begin at the Information Desk. No reservations are required; admission is free.
Our pre-school friends from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine came to visit today. It's hard to tell who has the most fun on these tours - the kids or the gallery teachers. Tours are available for students of all ages, and all of them are free.
People of all ages are always welcome. Are you bringing young people? Pick up an Art Activity Kit at the desk and have some fun in the galleries. Most afternoons you can find an Art Cart with a knowledgeable volunteer ready to talk to you about what's on the walls. Or just sit on a bench and enjoy the view!
The museum recently celebrated its first anniversary as part of the Google Art Project. We commemorated the occasion with our first online exhibition featuring Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood, plus other artists who captured this famous couple in their works. We will be posting more of these projects in the coming months.
You can find our Google Art Project page by clicking here or by using the menu bar and clicking on our Collections page. It’s your opportunity to browse our collection at your pace in your space.
Wilson is mainly known as illustrator of his monumental bird book American Ornithology, published in nine volumes from 1809–14, which is in the library’s holdings. Before starting American Ornithology, Wilson made a visit to Niagara Falls with two companions and wrote a long poem, The Foresters, based on the journey. The poem first appeared serially in The Port Folio before being published in book form in 1818. The poem provides one of the earliest descriptions of the American wilderness. This modern edition published by Bird & Bull Press on view now in the library reading room features original wood engravings by Wesley Bates that depict several scenes from the poem.
Alexander Wilson (1766–1813)
Wood engravings by Wesley W. Bates (b. 1952)
The Foresters: A Poetic Account of a Walking Journey to the Falls of Niagara in the Autumn of 1804
Newtown, Pa.: Bird & Bull Press, 2000
Late last year the research library acquired a unique artist book by Cynthia Brants, a member of the Fort Worth Circle. The pages fold out in accordion fashion and provide a moving-image-style recounting of a sometimes traumatic riding lesson. Though it appears she intended to make several of them, ours is the only known copy in existence. Yesterday library staff installed the book and accompanying printing blocks—a rarity to have both. This side-by-side arrangement gives visitors a chance to study the relationship of printing surface and resulting print. We invite you to come take a closer look in the library reading room during our public hours.
Cynthia Brants (1924–2006)
The Riding Lesson, or, The Nonzen of Riding a Moving Picture
Fort Worth, TX: The Mangle Press, 1959
Color woodcuts and accompanying wood printing blocks
The first Dust-to-Digital title to enter the research library's collection was Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950: Photographs from the Collection of Jim Linderman, published in 2009. We recently got the publisher's latest title, Lead Kindly Light: Pre-war Music and Photographs from the American South. With the other Dust-to-Digital titles in our collection, I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs, 1880-1955 and Never a Pal Like Mother: Vintage Songs & Photographs of the One Who’s Always True, we're clearly making a statement that we're a fan of the publisher's approach of marrying vintage photographs and music. Founded by Lance Ledbetter in 2003, Dust-to-Digital is currently operated by him and his wife April in Atlanta, Georgia. Though a strong impetus in their mission is preserving and making available rare recordings, we've chosen titles from their catalog that have strong photography content. The combination of period music and images really creates an immersive and magical experience. I encourage you to drop by the research library during our public hours to see (and hear) them--we're the only library in Fort Worth to offer these publications to the public.