ARTISTIC TRADITIONS: Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
Pictured: The carved watermelon trade sign by Waverly sculptor Miles Carpenter is a visitor favorite at the Abby Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, part of Colonial Williamsburg.
During their years hidden behind a historic façade, they were easy to overlook. Not anymore.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum are slated to celebrate an impressive new entrance this summer. For the first time, they will be separate from the reconstructed Public Hospital of 1773, which disguised them all too well.
“You literally went up a half-story, and then down a story and a half into the ground, through a tunnel, and back up a story and a half. You were back at street level but thought you were underground,” said Ronald Hurst, a vice president and chief curator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The new entrance on Nassau Street will take visitors straight into the main galleries, which have expanded in a complex that now totals about 165,000 square feet. Turn left to see folk art and right to see decorative arts.
Hurst noted that both museums are well-known in their respective circles, with the Rockefeller – the nation's oldest folk art museum – containing about 7,000 pieces.
Visitor favorites include the sweet “Baby in Red Chair” painting from the early 1800s, most likely from Pennsylvania; tabletop whirligigs from the 1990s created by Vollis Simpson of Wilson County, N.C.; and a 110-pound watermelon carved in 1960 by sculptor Miles Carpenter of Waverly to promote his produce stand.
“I never let it go off view, because when I do, I get complaints,” Hurst said of the watermelon, which a museum curator bought in 1973 from the artist.
The museum’s comprehensive collection of works by Edward Hicks also gets star treatment in a new exhibition of his “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings.
Having the Rockefeller and Wallace museums together makes it easy to see similarities and contrasts. Folk artists, Hurst noted, are generally self-taught and therefore tend to have their own perspectives, scales and senses of color.
“So you look at a folk portrait and you put it next to a Gilbert Stuart portrait, and they each have their appeals," he said, "but you can readily tell the difference.”