By PAT JOHNSON
“Basically, folk art is making something utilitarian into something beautiful,” according to Catherine McLearen, the Tuckerton Seaport’s Guest Experience manager. “Folk life expressions grow out of shared experiences and values and are windows into the community’s worldview for the outsider.”
The Seaport has opened its new exhibit “Folk Art 101” as told by 101 objects created within 58 miles of the Tucker’s Island Lighthouse, where the exhibit is housed. According to a placard, folk art can also be defined by what it is not: It’s not created by a classically trained artist, is not mass-produced by machines and has more to do with the tradition of a place than any other art form.
Historic decoys, then, fall into this category, and there are some amazing ones in the cases. Recognize a Shourds decoy or two and one that is the “pride and joy” of the exhibit, a standing blue heron found on a salt marsh and attributed to Sam Soper of Manahawkin. Its baleful eyes stare into the distant past when it was used to give ducks a welcoming feeling until they landed and all guns let loose. This type of stick-up decoy is called a confidence bird.
Except for the decoys and a huge wooden statue of a fisherman whose provenance is unknown, most of the folk art in the exhibit has been made by contemporary artisans.
Mark Bair is a contemporary carver who carves in the folk art tradition; his carved men each depict a manner of “working the cycle,” ways baymen made money year ’round. There are a clammer, a fisherman, a boat builder, hunter, decoy maker.
Tom Donahue welds shovels and saw pieces to make fish, spark plugs and drill bits to make hummingbirds, and uses other bits of found metal to make his fanciful garden sculptures.
Jay Mann finds horseshoe crab shells and decorates them with thousands of dots in colors of his choosing. The Australian aboriginal dot painters were his original inspiration.
In a case by one wall are the original decoys that were on display in the Barnegat Bay Decoy and Baymen’s Museum, the forerunner of the Tuckerton Seaport.The decoys sit on a mound of cedar shavings because that is what they are made of – white Atlantic cedar. Above the case is a painting by Dennis Seeley of West Creek. Seeley developed his own style of incorporating wood cutouts onto a painted background. The small steamship is the Pohatcong, a boat that used to ferry people from Tuckerton to the new resort of Beach Haven back in the 1800s. Tourists would first arrive by the Tuckerton Railroad from Whitings and then take a side rail to Edgewater Cove to board the Pohatcong.
On the wall next to the case is a banjo owned by Sam Hunt of Waretown. Hunt was the last of the handmade sailing garvey makers in the area. He had a wood steamer box in his yard where he bent the cedar planks into shape. His cabin in Waretown did not have electricity even into the 1980s, and he played banjo and mandolin by kerosene lantern light.
A typical Piney characteristic was to never waste anything. A hand saw that was no longer useful became a canvas. Burrel Adams from Manahawkin and later Tuckerton was a local historian and photographer for all his life, and although not a resident of the Pine Barrens, he appreciated their folk arts. His painted saw of the bay is a treasure, as is the contemporary saw by Paul Hartelius.
The Noyes Museum of Art was started as a folk art museum by Fred and Ethel Noyes, the couple who created Smithville Inn and Village in Atlantic County. The Noyes has since been absorbed into Stockton University and meets the needs of contemporary artists as well as curating the folk arts. It has lent the Seaport an original charcoal basket that was used by colliers, the men who made charcoal from pine and oak to fuel the iron forge industry.
Seaport resident folk artists and blacksmiths Stephen Nuttall and Toby Kroll have fashioned fireplace irons, sundials and other iron pieces, decorating them with horseheads. A Tuckerton mudshoe for horses that worked out on the salt marsh gathering salt hay is also re-created. The style of horseshoe kept the horses from sinking into the marsh. .
Also on display are quilts made by the Seaport Stitchers and historic needlework as well as a fine collection of glass bottles made in the area.
The “Folk Art 101” exhibit will be displayed all summer and fall with additions planned for tattoos, considered a type of folk art.
The Tuckerton Seaport is located at 120 Main St. in Tuckerton and is open every day. A slight admission fee is required for all the exhibits, boardwalk and resident artists.