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New exhibit at Jacksonville's Cummer Museum tells stories behind folk art

"The stories behind the artwork is really where the meat is."

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Every picture tells a story, as the saying goes. But some tell more elaborate stories than others.

"American Perspectives: Stories from the American Folk Art Museum Collection" is a new show at Jacksonville's Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, featuring 80 pieces of American folk art, each with its own back story.

Museums typically use a "tombstone," the art world's term for the little placards that tell the title of the artwork and the name of the artist, and a "label," which is a longer explanation of the piece. But there are no labels at this show. Instead, visitors can pick up a booklet on their way in that tells the backstories. It runs to 150 pages.

Click here to read more from The Florida Times-Union.

"The stories behind the artwork is really where the meat is," said Holly Keris, chief curator at the museum.

The label booklet is also available online at the museum's website for those who want to read about it before visiting.

You don't necessarily need to know the backstories to enjoy the art, Keris said, but it helps. One piece, for instance, appears to be a piece of driftwood wrapped in yarn. But once you learn the backstory, about a pair of twins — one with Down syndrome — who were separated and reunited years later, the piece takes on a whole new meaning. The carousel horse appears to be just a carousel horse, until you learn that it was carved for a Coney Island merry-go-round that never opened because the artist's workshop burned down.

The works in the show range from the 1740s to modern day and include paintings, carvings, metal work, signage, models, quilts, clothing and clocks.

"We hope that when people come there will be something here that resonates," Keris said. 

Click here to read more from The Florida Times-Union.

There are a few well-known artists in the show — Grandma Moses, Edward Hicks — but for the most part, the creators aren't famous. An enormous 200-to-1 scale model of a museum that was never built, for instance, was created by an auto body mechanic in his spare time. A carved wooden tiger that greets visitors at the entrance to the show was made by a retired woodworker.

"What I love about this show is that not all of the artists' names are household names," said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, the museum's director and CEO.

Keris said the artists who created the works on display weren't doing it for money or fame or online likes; they were doing it because it's just what they do.

"I personally enjoy folk art," she said. "I think, especially today, that there is something that is so beautiful, so powerful about the human desire to create."

Some pieces are whimsical, such as "The Comfort of Moses and the Ten Commandments," which is an iron chair in which the biblical figure practically invites visitors to sit in his lap (although it doesn't look all that comfortable). 

Others are more somber, such as "Mother Sister May Have Sat in That Chair When She Lived in This House Before Me," a 2014 "quilt" made up of pieces of wood and chairs and moldings salvaged from the wreckage left behind when Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans.

The pieces speak for themselves as artwork, but really come to life when people learn the stories behind them. "I hope visitors will take a moment to dive a little deep into some of these stories," Keris said. "I hope people have a lot of fun with it."

The show, on loan from the American Folk Art Museum in New York, will be at the Cummer through May 22.

The museum is still using a timed-entry system to limit the number of visitors in the galleries at any one time. Go to cummermuseum.org/events/type/admission to reserve a time slot.  

Click here to read more from The Florida Times-Union. 

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