Intelligent Design At James A. Michener Art Museum

DOYLESTOWN, PENN. — For years the rolling fields, verdant woodlands, picturesque waterways, stone buildings and quiet rural ambience of southeastern Pennsylvania, especially Bucks County, have attracted creative people. Literary and theatrical figures, artists and craftspeople, anxious to find inexpensive country places in proximity to New York and Philadelphia, settled the area in such numbers that it became known as “The Genius Belt.”

As former director of the James A. Michener Art Museum Bruce Katsiff observed, “Offering a unique mixture of natural beauty, Quaker tolerance, colonial history and the sophisticated influence of two great cities,… [Bucks County] has been a sanctuary for artists for more than 200 years — a place where some of our nation’s best creative minds have lived and worked as accepted members of the community.”

In addition to well-known writers and painters, this hotbed of creativity has a long tradition of Arts and Crafts achievements and studio craft artists who continue to produce a variety of admired work. “Intelligent Design,” a relatively new installation at the Michener Museum that is on permanent display, celebrates this rich regional history from its beginnings into the Twenty-First Century. “The creative energy, broad technical repertoire and innovative designs of the artists represented here make them highly desirable candidates for the Michener’s permanent collection,” says the museum’s curator of collections Constance Kimmerle, who organized the display.

The local crafts tradition owes much to an affluent native of Bucks County, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856–1930), who just before World War I built three poured concrete structures in Doylestown: his fortresslike mansion “Fonthill” (now a fascinating house museum), the equally imposing Mercer Museum (housing a mind-boggling collection of early American implements) and the still operating Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, represented by a 1920s mosaic tile in “Intelligent Design.” Mercer was an exponent of the late Nineteenth Century Arts and Crafts Movement that arose in response to the impact of industrialization on America’s environment, rhythms of life and work and how objects were made. He espoused the movement’s founder William Morris’s credo that “art should be by the people and for the people, a pleasure to its maker and its user.”

The senior member of the Bucks County crafts group, Morgan Colt (1876–1926), was a trained painter and architect before settling in the area in 1908 and launching the Gothic Shop, where he designed, built and decorated wrought iron and carved wood chairs, tables and chests. “Colt’s artistic work in iron and wood now strikes the eye as a curiously eclectic synthesis of early American, rustic Italian and provincial French styles,” crafts historian Cleota Reed has written. By building and furnishing his home and studio at Phillips Mill with products of his own hands, he made them works of art, “setting an example of originality of thought in the crafts that cut across categories, functions and media.”

In addition to championing handcrafted objects, Colt painted landscapes, contributing to the distinguished New Hope Group of Painters that included William Lathrop, Edward W. Redfield, Daniel Garber, Fern Coppedge, John F. Folinsbee, Charles Rosen and Robert Spencer.

Redfield (1869–1965) was not only an internationally recognized oil painter, famed for his vigorous snowscapes, but a dedicated craftsperson who made furniture, chests and hooked rugs in and for his stone house on the Delaware Canal in Center Bridge. He said jokingly that he could not afford to sell his craft objects because they took so much longer to create than the plein air paintings he finished in one day — “at one go.” His hooked rug “Boothbay Harbor” documents his deft craftsman’s hand and eye.

Redfield and other Pennsylvania Impressionists benefited from frames designed by Frederick Harer (1880–1949), who settled in Bucks County in 1923. His carefully carved and gilded frames, each unique in color and material, “established a vibrant relationship with the paintings they showcased,” according to Reed.

Trained as a painter, sculptor and printmaker at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Harer learned woodworking from his father, a successful furniture maker, and produced bookcases, dressing tables, desks and chairs that combined beautiful woods with decorative touches. A perfectionist, Harer aimed for what he called “fundamental truths” that he hoped would survive for posterity. “There is no such thing as Modernism — furniture is first practical and then ornamental,” he declared.

Other notable Delaware Valley craftspersons between the two world wars included Harer’s frame-making student Ben Badura, painter and stained glass maker George W. Sotter and painter Ethel Wallace, who revived the ancient art of batik. However, “By the end of World War II,” said Reed, “New Hope as a crafts colony seemed past its prime….The Arts and Crafts Movement had lost its impetus, and with it went the special value that it had accorded to handicraft.” Moreover, she added, “The Depression tightened markets, the war brought shortages of materials, made travel difficult and further limited the market for crafts.”

The area crafts tradition was revived after the end of World War II by two major figures, Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. Like other Delaware Valley craftsmen, Esherick (1887–1970) started out as an academically trained painter before taking up chisels and wood in 1924. His fascinating studio in Malvern, Penn., built between 1926 and 1966 and now open for visitors, reflects the evolution of his sculptural style from Arts and Crafts through German Expressionism to the free-form Modernist curves of his later work. By 1940, Esherick was recognized as a leading maker of studio furniture.

His five-structure mountainside retreat, personally designed and built to create a complete artistic environment, is highlighted by the studio filled with sculpture, furniture, furnishings, paintings and prints. It showcases sturdy, practical, free-form pieces that combine the material essence of early American handcrafts with the spirit of Modern sculpture. As Esherick Studio officials put it, he used “wood and stone to express the same sort of Impressionist and Cubist interpretative visions that others of his generation were working out with oils or clay.”

Two loans from the Wharton Esherick Museum highlight the “Intelligent Design” installation, “Library Ladder” and “Sheet Music Stand,” both dating to the 1960s. Each features flowing shapes of cherrywood grain in geometrical forms echoing Cubism. They demonstrate how Esherick “designed each sculptural piece of his furniture around the physical properties of his material,” says Kimmerle.

Nakashima (1905–1990), born in Spokane, Wash., of Japanese parents, studied forestry and architecture and during seven years working in Asia discovered the wonders of fine craftwork, particularly woodworking. Interned with other Japanese Americans on the West Coast at the outbreak of the war, he was able to relocate to New Hope in 1943 when a friend offered him work on his farm.

Nakashima soon began to design solid wood furniture, which he carved and finished with impeccable respect for texture and organic structure. His most important contribution to the field may be using the natural edges of pieces of wood as part of the finished object, evoking highly dynamic qualities. 

“The spirituality of both Shaker and traditional Japanese furniture influenced his designs,” observed Reed. Synthesizing hand with machine, spirituality with materiality, Nakashima achieved a kind of organic naturalism in his work. In so doing, he elevated his wooden chairs, tables and cabinets to high art, transcending traditional concepts of furniture, and becoming one of the great craftsmen in American history.

The Nakashima tradition has been ably carried on by his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall (b 1942), who continues to operate a much-admired woodworking operation in New Hope. Her “Concordia Chair” and “Simon Table” in the installation reflect the manner in which she incorporates spiritual meaning into her designs and materials.

Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919–2008), a native of Philadelphia who trained as an engineer, moved to New Hope just after World War II and, inspired by Esherick and George Nakashima, crafted a variety of custom-designed functional objects. His slate-topped tables and chairs and intensely crafted wood pieces, such as table lamps, cabinets, consoles, sideboards and screens, combined modernity with traditional styles. Opting for a naturalistic approach, Powell’s sinuous, textural furniture, painstakingly handcarved from gleaming woods, let the contour of grain reveal itself and even dictate the shape and flow of the piece. Powell’s intricately carved “Fireplace” is a standout.

Bucks County native Paul Evans (1931–1987) trained as a silversmith and gained fame for using welding, metallurgical and jewelry design skills to create collagelike metal objects festooned with sculpted, high-relief abstract forms. Settling in New Hope in the mid-1950s, Evans collaborated with Powell for a decade, creating “unique custom-designed functional furniture that blurred the traditional boundaries between craft, sculpture and design,” says Kimmerle. Among their most successful works: decorative screens with loopy fish-scale patterns of welded iron.

In his own work, Evans used new technology and nontraditional, nonorganic materials to create full lines of furniture and objects ranging from sculpted steel sideboards to chrome coffee tables. His diverse output is represented at the Michener by an “Argente Cube Table” and a “Sculpted Steel Wall Collage.”

Other notable works in the installation are a Toshiko Takaezu glazed ceramic “Closed Form” and glazed porcelain bowl; a curly maple armchair and desk by Robert Whatley; Robert Winokur’s “Asparagus Holds Up the House” and Michael Brolly’s whimsical “Dancing Tryclopes.”

For nearly 50 years David Ellsworth (b 1944) has been creating hollow-turned vessels that Kimmerle says have “broadened the definition of woodturning from a means of producing functional objects to that of making fragile, impressive objects for display.” Drawing on expertise in ceramics and knowledge of fine arts, as well as his technical ability and understanding of form, Ellsworth has pioneered in exploring the vessel as a sculptural statement. His incredibly lightweight, thin-walled objects are “extraordinary technical achievements” that have inspired a generation of woodworkers to take hollow vessels beyond conventional limitations. Ellsworth’s “Spirit Vessel,” with its inherent imperfections, is fascinating.

The most recent work in the installation is by 60-year-old Mark Sfirri of New Hope, who trained at the Rhode Island School of Design and is a gifted teacher as well as prolific woodturner. A big fan of Esherick, Sfirri specializes in off-center and inside-out turning, as well as creating pieces that appear to be bent. Through his students, his design approach, his methods and his own work, he has increased public recognition of studio woodturning as a significant contemporary art form. Several examples of his idiosyncratic works on view attest to his skills and imagination.

The exhibition offers an excellent overview of the manner in which southeastern Pennsylvania studio craftspeople over the last century have designed objects both functional and beautiful, objects of diverse styles and motifs, with the power to stir emotions and evoke ideas. Moreover, the display suggests that with the creative energy, innovative designs and ingenious techniques of artists like Ellsworth and Sfirri, area woodworkers will continue to explore fresh ideas through new creations. As Kimmerle observes, “Whether a mosaic tile, an abstract form in wood, a wall sculpture or a ceramic vessel, these nonverbal forms of human expression not only reflect cultural values, but have the power to transform everyday lives.”

This permanent installation increases the luster of the Michener Museum, a jewel of a regional museum that continues to expand its ability to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the Bucks County area.

The Michener Museum is at 138 South Pine Street. For information, 215-340-9800 or www.michenermuseum.org.

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