CINCINNATI -- Making everyday objects aesthetically pleasing is not a new concept, and "A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America," the largest new exhibition of folk art at Cincinnati Art Museum, proves that.
The more than 100 pieces of American folk art on display prove just how fascinated Americans have been with sprucing up common pieces for the last 200 years.
"I think it's approachable because it's art made for everyday people, by everyday people," said Amy Dehan, the museum's curator of decorative art and design. "There's something very emotive and expressive about (these pieces) that I think resonates with most people who would come in to see them."
From hand-painted and carved furniture items such as chests and cupboards to family portraiture and trade signs (forebears of modern advertising), "A Shared Legacy" highlights the art that surrounded people of the past in much the same way it does today.
Consider, for instance, the selfie. A now-ubiquitous digital form of capturing faces, cellphone selfies have the same basic premise as an olden-day miniature portrait. Although the intent of selfies may be more vanity than commemoration, that's still a surprising commonality with the portraits of the past.
"(Portraits) help people connect with people of the past (and realize) that people are not so different, though the technology may change, (and) you may have portraits in different forms," said Julie Aronson, curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings. "To think that people may only have had one portrait of somebody that they loved is an amazing thing. It's hard for us to even wrap our heads around sometimes, but these paintings were very, very meaningful to people."
A set of vibrant portraits with local ties includes a painting of businessman Thomas Joseph French by the artist John Bradley, next to a portrait of French's daughter. French was a successful dairy owner in Cincinnati in the late 1800s; his French-Bauer ice cream may ring a bell for longtime Cincinnatians. In the background of French's stately portrait? His dairy farm, complete with cows and workers with milk buckets.
Adjacent is the portrait of his daughter, which features the child clutching a cat by one of its forearms. The way in which these images depict realistic moments -- children accidentally terrorizing domestic pets, a commonplace cow -- is another method by which folk art is made inherently relatable. So, too, are the vibrant colors and light-hearted nature many of the pieces embody, along with the nature of the craftsmanship itself -- and the crafter.
"(These are things) that were just made by artists because they were compelled to make them for one reason or another, and they just enjoyed them at home," said Aronson.
A number of chests and four-legged furniture pieces stand out as such examples. Carefully painted and carved after a number of influences, these are the workhorse pieces of art that combined practicality with pleasure. They bring to mind another contemporary concept: the do-it-yourself movement.
"There's a great chest … that we borrowed from a local collector, and it was made by the son of German immigrants living in Ohio," said Dehan. "(He) created these incredible chests with this incredible faux graining in an effort to kind of fancy-up a less expensive wood."
Like hope chests and other heirloom household pieces, this chest and others were built to last.
"These were most often given to young men and women to hold their worldly possessions, things that they prized, and were built in a very sturdy way so that they could be passed down from generation to generation," said Dehan.
Although these examples are indicative of aspects of folk art, it is hard to nail down the specifics of the movement in a single phrase or sentence. Whimsy and color are present in most pieces in the exhibition, but a portrait series memorializing the burning of a church contrasts with that mood.
Life-sized, three-dimensional "trade figure" advertisements also are not immediately married in the mind to the same genre as "crazy quilts" and still-life depictions of fruit.
"It's hard to give strict parameters to what folk art is, because it's this very fluid term and it means a number of different things to different people," said Dehan. "Some people do interpret it as art made by minimally trained artists or self-taught artists, but that's not always the case, as you have very skilled carvers who are carving carousel animals or potters who are making vessels. Often it means that it was made for the rural middle class, but then you also have pieces that were made for more urban clients and settings."
She said the unifying factor of folk art is how it makes the creator and the viewer feel.
"(These pieces are) just something to bring joy to the common, everyday experience," said Dehan.
'A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America'
Cincinnati Art Museum: 953 Eden Park Drive, Eden Park
Exhibit opens: 11 a.m. June 10
Tickets: $5-$10; free admission for members.
Tip: Use code SocialBOGO online to get buy-one, get-one-free tickets. Admission is free 5-8 p.m. on Thursdays and during Art After Dark, 5-9 p.m. on the final Friday of each month.