Everyone knows what “right” is—it’s when an artwork succeeds in creating the illusion of reality.
IF YOU HAVE EVER TAKEN A DRAWING CLASS YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD SOMEONE ask the instructor: Does this look right? Everyone knows what “right” is—it’s when an artwork succeeds in creating the illusion of reality. Artists are schooled to get it right, practiced in techniques such as perspective, value, and proportion. The art on display in the Gallery of Conscience, at the Museum of International Folk Art, would likely not do well in an academic critique because it was made by self-taught artists. When a self-taught, folk artist gets it wrong, we see it as naïve and not as a choice. When a trained artist creates an image that looks off, as Picasso did in his landmark painting The Young Ladies of Avignon, we recognize it as a choice. Folk artists, though, do make significant choices when, without training, studios, or promise of financial reward, they choose to make art.
I went to the Museum of International Folk Art the night it presented Through the Eye of the Needle, which is a documentary about folk artist Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, one of the artists whose work is currently on display in Between Two Worlds. In the film, Krinitz’s daughter, Helene McQuade, explained, “Our mother was very driven to tell the story. She wanted us to know, she wanted us to remember.” Her mother had escaped the Holocaust by assuming a fake identity, then after the war immigrated to America, had a family, and at age fifty began to make pictures. Trained as a seamstress, she used cloth and thread to put together images for her children of the life she had with her other family in Poland.
After the movie, Bernice Steinhardt, another of the artist’s daughters, spoke about her mother’s art and told the crowd that an effort was being made to bring an exhibition of Krinitz’s artwork—thirty-six pictures total—to the Museum of International Folk Art for an exhibition. She also spoke of a workshop in which she and faculty from Santa Fe Community College, inspired by her mother’s art, encouraged untrained artists to use cloth and create pictures of their own stories.
Coming to America is the picture of Krinitz’s that is currently on view. It depicts her and other family arriving at Ellis Island. The figures are not posed naturalistically. They stand in rigid contrast to a group of flying seagulls, whose white wings, drawn with a high degree of variation and movement, stand out against a blue cloth sky. The boat that carries the family approaches the Statue of Liberty—the image of promise and hope for a better life.
Though everyone’s stories are unique, the immigrant experience starts with a reason for leaving: war, poverty, natural disasters. You may be thinking that this doesn’t sound like fun, but the thing is: folk art is fun. It is colorful and surprising and a strong sense of design often informs the narrative, as in J. Miguel da Silva’s print, Retirantes (Family Leaving), a picture of a family walking away from their drought-ridden home in search of somewhere else to live. Refugiados (Refugees), a sculpture by Camurdino Mustafá Jethá, also portrays a family fleeing, though from civil war. The linear design is created by the portrayal of individuals walking in a line, taking what they can carry.
The painting by Billie Hutt, Untitled: (Conversos), depicts a family keeping the Jewish tradition of Shabbat within the privacy of their home, lighting candles on Friday night amidst the architecture and landscape of New Mexico: a menorah sits on a kiva-style fireplace while out the window a tall white cross stands on a hill. The figures in Hutt’s painting were not rendered with foreshortening or realistic proportions. Still, the artwork powerfully represents the immigrant’s dilemma—how to fit into a new culture while at the same time retaining some of who you were.
In the spirit of the gallery’s participatory exercises, I will say I come from a family of immigrants. My parents are from different countries, met in a third, where I was born, and then we immigrated to the United States. I grew up with stories of people and things left behind. One of the thought-provoking participatory displays in the gallery addresses that common aspect of the immigrant experience. It is a collection of objects arranged a bit like a still life set up for art students to draw. The display prompts the viewer to consider two questions: If you had to take one thing, what would you take? If you had to leave one thing behind, what would you miss most? My response was quite common. I wrote “pictures” and “people.”