One of the sweet spots unearthed while hanging around the hayfields of home, some of what would be termed "Outsider Art" caught my eye in a small gallery down the street from the bookstore. The works of Amish artist Anna Weaver is very visible in the small village of Sherman, New York. I first saw reproductions of her paintings on cards and rocks displayed for sale at East Branch Books, where Anna's work was championed by the owner, Reta Carden. An even bigger surprise was in wait next door at a restaurant:
"Not only will one savor the tasty food at the Great White Shark Pizza, they will also enjoy the family oriented decor. The south wall in the building depicts the Amish countryside in the Sherman area. Artist Anna Weaver created it. Although she had used her talent to paint other pictures such as saw blades and china, it was her first mural." - Post Journal, May 10, 2009
Anna knocked out that mural in nine days, working about four hours a day, and without penciling the design out on either the wall or sketched out beforehand.
Aside from those two places, the sole gallery representing Anna's original acrylic paintings (on both canvas and saw-blades) is through "Something Unique" Gallery & Frameshop, also located in Sherman. Owner Bob Rogers started carrying her work only a month ago, and pointed out the "unusual and unique" attributes distinguishing her pieces isn't so much the content but the fact that the creator is from a community not commonly associated with such artisan efforts. Folk art tends to be concentrated on the more craft-oriented such as quilting and furniture, and Amish culture in particular emphasizes "simple living, plain dress and resistance to the adoption of many modern conveniences." This approach informs her pieces which represent pictures of everyday life and activities associated with farm and country.
I had the opportunity to sit with Anna at her home and ask a few questions about her work: her background in art is entirely self-taught with no formal classes, starting drawing at age 2, and with the support and encouragement of her mother pushed into painting by six years old. When I asked about any possible religious prohibitions regarding her doing artwork, as to my knowledge Anna is the only Amish painter out there and I was curious as to why this could be, she laughed and said "If there is, nobody told me!" Basically her motivation at this point is simply to earn money to support her family through commissions and sales of her artwork.
What really impressed me was the focus and drive it takes to produce pieces amidst raising six children while living without many of the amenities taken for granted like electricity, phones and technological gizmos cluttering up most folk's life. Gave me yet another bone to pick with the occasional whiny art student who complains about how hard it is to do homework...
It was a relief to see a different culture that hadn't quite been so capitalized yet* by white folks (like Alaska Native art), and also refreshing to see such honest portrayals of simple life. Clichéd stereotypes of idyllic, pastoral scenes of simple country life run the risk of being critiqued as naive and unrefined, but those are also attributes that have tremendous appeal to someone constantly inundated with and exposed to unintelligible and pretentiously impenetrable artsy-fartsy. As a parting gift I gave Anna a good book about Grandma Moses' artwork to mull over, and pointed out that while there are lots of cartoonists around, there's only a few Alaskan ones, and her rather unique perspective and situation is also a potentially strong selling point of distinction. Felt rather weird as an art instructor to tell someone to not bother taking any classes, but I thought that the way she was going about it worked just perfect for what she wanted it to be; just trying to make the time to make more art which is a recurrent theme for just about every artist I know.
* As it happened, the following weekend I stumbled across an article about the current rage in Christian romance fiction which is ripping off Amish culture: contemporary authors like NYT best-seller Beverly Lewis' "The Missing" which has now sold over a million copies and others are capitalizing on the market for chaste bodice-rippers. Hopefully the publishers will actually recognize and utilize authentic talent like Anna Weaver for future projects, like maybe illustrations and cover art.