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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Allfred Wallis

Three Master with Sea Birds, Alfred Wallis
Folk artists have existed...well, since the first Neanderthal started decorating stone walls with animal images some 20,000 years ago...give or take a millennia or two. It was based upon what these prehistoric artists recalled from their adventurous efforts to put a little meat on the table. Folk Art was, in fact, the first type of art known to man. I'm not sure when it happened, but sometime along the way, art veered off from recollections of the past to representations of the present. Artists chose to paint what they could see and touch rather than what they remembered. Art became centered upon realism and eye-catching technical virtuosity in imitation or reality. Folk Art didn't cease to exist, it just faded into obscurity.
A Wallis sampler
It's amazing, and perhaps amusing too, how narrowly focused those of the art world become when they start talking about Folk Art. I know that's the case with Americans and I'm guessing the tendency holds for other nationalities as well. When we Americans think about Folk Art, we picture in our minds only the work of American Folk Artists. We picture rural landscapes or quaint expressions of small-town Americana, usually from the middle of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th-century, certainly no more recently than the 1930s Depression era. It might come as a shock to some Americans that Folk Art does not end at the Atlantic shore. Virtually every country in Europe has their own collection of Folk Art reflecting very accurately not just their particular culture, but also the common people and landscape of that nation. French Folk Art, for instance, tends to revolve around a broad variety of handmade items with painted decorations. Great Britain, on the other hand, has always been a seafaring nation. So naturally, there is a heavy emphasis on ships and the sea in all their Folk Art. One such artist who perfectly reflects this content was the St. Ives fisherman-artist, Alfred Wallis.
Wallis' home at 3 Back
Road West, St. Ives
Alfred Wallis was "discovered" one afternoon in 1928 quite by accident. Two British Expressionist painters, Ben Nicholson and John Christopher "Kit" Wood, were strolling the back streets of St. Ives, a small "arty" town along the Cornish coast of southwestern England. They happened to see through the open front door of a small stone house, a number of odd-sized painted images of sailing ships. Being artists themselves, and thus naturally curious sorts, they knocked on the door. As a result, they came to know Alfred Wallis, a seventy-three-year-old, eccentric, little man who painted on pieces of corrugated cardboard using marine paints scrounged from shipyards in the area. True to form as with many Folk artists, he'd never taken an art class in his life, and had never touched an artist's brush until he was some seventy years of age.
Schooner, Alfred Wallis
Though Folk Art is as old as art itself, it might have forever remained a rather obscure, somewhat amusing, little twig on the tree of Art except for the chain reaction triggered by the development of photography during the latter half of the 19th-century. Photography freed art from the burden of always representing some form (actual or imagined) of reality. It allowed artists the freedom to draw from within for their content, rather than always seeking out the imitation of nature. During the early years of the 20th century, they came to call this new freedom Expressionism. Strangely enough, drawing from within was precisely what Folk artists had been doing in obscurity for thousands of years. It took the newly-minted Expressionists to come to this realization, and then to elevate its earliest efforts to the level of "fine" art. The results were long-overdue gallery shows of the work of artists such as Edward Hicks, Joseph Pickett, Mary Robertson Moses, Adolf Dietrich, Radi Nedelchev, and Alfred Wallis.
Lost work, Alfred Wallis

Alfred Wallis, ca. 1930s, Ben Edge
Alfred Wallis was born in 1855, near the town of Penzance near the westernmost tip of England. As a teenager, he was apprenticed to a basket maker but soon found the pay much better working aboard fishing ships running between Penzance and Newfoundland. In 1876, Wallis married a widow named Susan Ward (and her five children). He was 20. She was 41. Following the death of two infant children, Wallis switched to local fishing. The family moved to St. Ives, Cornwall, in 1890 where Wallis became a marine stores dealer, buying scrap iron, sails, rope and other items. In 1912, he closed his business, took on odd jobs, and worked for a local antiques dealer, which provided some insight into the world of objects d'art. Wallis' wife died in 1922. It was then, for the first time, he took up painting "for company."

Cottage Amongst Trees, Alfred Wallis
Wallis' paintings are an excellent example of naïve art. Perspective is totally ignored. Each object's scale is often based on its relative importance in the scene. Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew had been replaced by steam. As he put it, his subjects were "...what use To Bee out of my memory what we may never see again..." He had little money. As a result he improvised for art supplies, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes and using a very limited palette of paint bought from ships' chandlers. Insofar as Folk Art was concerned, Wallis' timing was excellent. When Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood came to St Ives in 1928 to start an artist colony, they were delighted to find Wallis and his direct approach to painting. Wallis considered that his images were never paintings but actual events. Through Nicholson and Wood, Wallis was propelled into a circle of some of the most progressive artists working in Britain at the time.

St Michael's Mount with Yellow Sailing Ships, Alfred Wallis
Alfred Wallis' tomb
Wallis may have influenced them, but he, himself, continued to paint as he always had. Nicholson described Wallis' art as something that has grown out of the Cornish seas and earth. Through Nicholson and Wood, Wallis was introduced to Jim Ede who promoted his work in London. Despite having been "discovered" by the British art world, Wallis sold few paintings and continued to live in poverty. To his dying day Wallis believed that his neighbors resented his fame, believing him to be secretly rich. In one of his last letters to Ede he wrote:
"i am thinkin of givin up The paints all to gether i have nothin But Persecution and gelecy [jealousy] and if you can com [come] down for an hour or 2 you can take them with you and give what they are worf  [worth] afterwards. These drawers [other artists] and shopes are all jealous of me."
Alfred Wallis died in 1942 at the Madron workhouse in Penzance. He was eighty-seven.

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