Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Plain and Fancy: A Review of Research in Mennonite Folk Arts

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Plain and Fancy: A Review of Research in Mennonite Folk Arts

Article excerpt

Sometimes we say that current interest in Amish quilts dates from the display of American quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1970. If so, then the burgeoning interest in other Mennonite folk art may date from the 1982 exhibit, "The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of Their Arts, 1683-1850," sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.

In that display, which commemorated the emigration of the first Germans (Mennonites and Quakers) to Pennsylvania in 1683, as many as 50 of the 333 items may have been made by Mennonites, and the most outstanding piece of the exhibit--the Huber sulfur inlay wardrobe-was first attributed in the exhibit catalog to Christian Huber, a Mennonite working in Lancaster County. Except for studies of Mennonite fraktur, which preceded even the interest in quilts, and except for a few Canadian studies, most of the important publications on Mennonite expressive material culture followed 1982. Even if one cannot prove cause and effect, the symbolic dates of 1683 and 1983 may justify using the exhibit as a turning point for this ever-growing field of inquiry.

The seven new books, listed below, that prompt this review essay are cases in point of the current widespread interest, on many levels and from many quarters, in Mennonite and Amish folk art. Seen in the context of previous, related work, they allow an assessment of progress in this field of study and prompt consideration of the direction that future study may take. Overall, they show that such studies have been long on collection and documentation but short on analysis and insight into how material culture offers new insights for the field of Mennonite studies.

The seven new books include: (1)

Amish Folk Artist Barbara Ebersol: Her life, Fraktur, and Death Record Book by David Luthy.

Canadian Country Furniture 1675-1950 by Michael S. Bird.

Decorative Arts of Ohio's Sonnenberg Mennonites by Paul G. Locher, Joseph W. Irvin and Stanley Kaufman.

Folk and Decorative Arts of the Shenandoah Valley by the Shenandoah Valley Folklore Society.

Pennsylvania Folk Art of Samuel L. Plank by James and Vivian Bonson, et al.

The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley by H. E. Comstock.

Two Folk Artists: The Story of Henry Lapp and Barbara Ebersol by Louise Stoltzfus.

These books represent the first three of four main kinds of publications dealing with Mennonite-related folk arts: (1) By cultural region, i.e., Mennonite items integrated with non-Mennonite ones from a designated geographic region; (2) By Mennonite region, i.e., many genres of Mennonite work from a specific Mennonite community; (3) Of an individual Mennonite artist and (4) Of a single Mennonite genre, i.e., one kind of Mennonite item, whether from one region or as found in many regions.

CULTURAL REGION STUDIES

Canadian Country Furniture (1994) and The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley (1994) are perfect works of their kind--comprehensive in scope, well documented, well edited and designed, and lavishly illustrated. The 704 illustrations of furniture and the 903 of pottery--all conveniently placed next to the texts that discuss them--will facilitate identification of other items by collectors and museums and offer data for comparative analysis by scholars.

Michael S. Bird, author of Canadian Country Furniture, has published many other articles and books on Mennonite folk arts, chief of which are Ontario Fraktur (1977) and A Splendid Harvest: Germanic Folk and Decorative Arts in Canada (with Terry Kobayashi, 1981). In his newest book, Swiss Mennonite and Amish furniture is prominent in the section devoted to Ontario, and Russian Mennonite and Hutterite furniture predominate in the section on the western provinces. Although pictures of many of the items have appeared before in publications by Bird and others, the Ontario furniture by Abraham Latschaw, Moses Eby, Jacob Fry, Christian and John Gerber, John Grobb, Samuel Snider and others gains new interest in the context of multiple examples by unknown Mennonite craftsmen as well as other German and Anglo-Canadian makers whose work obviously influenced them. …

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