Folk Art | Americana | Antique Rag Dolls & Toys
Some years ago, over dinner at the home of friends, I met a woman named Pat. She arrived with a friend and, with his help, walked slowly, aided by crutches under each arm. Had she been in an accident? As we began chatting, I asked her that very question.
Pat shook her head. She was recovering from bone cancer, she told me, after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. “If they can find a good match,” she explained, “they basically nuke your bone marrow and drain it out. And if that doesn’t kill you, you have a chance.”
That evening I learned that Pat had a home just a few streets from mine but had moved back home with her mom while she recovered. When I told Par that I was an antiques and folk art dealer, she brightened and said, “I have a house full of folk art, and I’m having a huge sale a few weeks from now to help cover my medical expenses. You should come.”
So I did. The morning of the sale eager buyers formed a line from Pat’s doorstep to more than halfway down the block. She sat on the porch, smiling and greeting friend and strangers alike as we filed through the front door into the treasure trove that was Pat’s home. Room after room was filled with handcrafted boxes, baskets, pottery and jugs, paintings, carvings, tramp art, folk art — all the things I love and collect — from folk-y to funky to fine.
Among the pieces I chose that day were two miniature folk art chairs, which I still treasure. By the time I left, the crowd had thinned but Pat was still sitting on the porch, crutches nearby. I stopped to tell her what a treat it was to see her collection — and couldn’t help but say, “Isn’t it hard, though, to part with all your wonderful things?” Her eyes sparkled as she leaned forward and chortled, “You should see what’s stashed upstairs — all the stuff I held back for myself!”
I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what happened to Pat after that, as I soon moved away. But I always seem to think of her as one year ends and another begins.
And I remember what she taught me. No matter what happens in our life, we all get to choose what we hold on to … and what we let go.
Remember the scene in the original “Toy Story” movie where the family car and the moving van pull away from the house, leaving a handful of toys behind?
It’s a scene right out of my childhood. In the movie, of course, the toys that get left are eventually reunited with their owner.
My case was a little different. My dad was in the Navy, so we made lots of moves (I attended 11 public schools in 12 years).
And what I always chose first were my books, a cherished doll or two, and the occasional school project or award. To this day, I still have my childhood copies of “ The Secret Garden,” “Little Women,” and a handful of Trixie Belden mysteries. I also kept three prize-winning photos I took in junior high. And three dolls: a 1950s Madame Alexander Cissette; 1950s Littlest Angel; and the Raggedy Ann I wrote about in “Providence.”
A dozen years ago I started my antiques business after purchasing several collections of early Steiff animals. To this day, antique toys are an important part of my business. Like the early Bliss toy highchair I recently acquired, along with a J&E Stevens toy cast iron dresser, a pair of antique bell toys, a late 19th c. rag doll from Vermont, a handcrafted miniature sideboard and more.
I come across a toy with a date, a name, a place, a maker — something that anchors it in time, like David’s Doll, Helen May Neumeyer’s miniature table, Christmas 1886, and Charlotte’s Bear “Pierre,” pictured in this 1920s photo with Charlotte’s father (also named Pierre), who gave her the bear.
I don’t always know the origin of every toy I find. But I do know this: Eventually every toy finds its way home. And every toy has a story.
One of the best, most memorable vacations my mother ever had was in 1977 when she went to Trinidad for Carnival. Her boss at the time had been to Trinidad a few years earlier to recruit employees for an oil refinery on St. Croix. One of the people he hired was a man named Vernon, a native Trinidadian. They remained friends, and Vernon was kind enough to arrange the details of mother’s visit. She stayed with his sister Vera and her family in the capital city of Port-of-Spain, which has celebrated Carnival since the late 1700s.
With Vera and Vernon as her self-appointed guides, Mom experienced Carnival, not as a visitor from the States,” but as Islanders do.
There were daily visits to family and friends where the mood was festive and the reception gracious. “Eat, drink,” the urged mom, as they passed around platters of food and served up rum and coconut milk punch in hollowed-out coconut shells. They took her to dinner at the famous “Up-Side-Down Hotel”; sat on bleachers watching parades by day, eating picnic lunches they brought from home; and by night they joined revelers following the parading masquerades through the streets and cheering their favorite bands.
Early in the visit, Vera and her family took mom to an open-air market to buy meat from the local butcher Pierre. Mom is a friendly, outgoing sort, so when she was introduced to the butcher, she reached out to shake his brawny hand — which he quickly wiped before grasping hers. Somehow that simple gesture meant something to her hosts. And wherever they went, whenever they introduced Mom to a new group of friends, they made note of the fact that “Margaret shook hands with Pierre.”
A few years ago, I came across a vintage hand-made noisemaker, the kind that’s seen in Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations around the world. This one (pictured here) is European and could be from Spain or Portugal or even Trinidad or Brazil, given their cultural cross-pollination.
As I was adding the noisemaker to the Curious Objects Gallery, I thought of mom’s Carnival adventure: the island city, the food, the calypso music, the steel bands, the pageantry, and most of all, the hospitality that so completely surrounded her she was, for a time, Trinidadian.
One of the most exciting things about the buying end of this business is finding a piece with great eye appeal (be it form, surface, originality, etc.), only to discover there’s more to it than meets the eye. Something that adds an unexpected dimension and makes it more unique and intriguing than I ever imagined.
The same thing’s true of people. You meet someone you find likable and interesting and then discover something so unexpected about him, it blows your mind.
That’s how it happened with my buddy Kevin Gordon. I was at FolkFest in Atlanta in 2004, happily browsing and shopping, when I wandered into the booth of a pale, kind of studious-looking guy with squarish black-rimmed glasses and a shock of dark hair. (Think Buddy Holly-meets-young-Elvis Costello).
It was Kevin, the unassuming proprietor of an excellent on-line source for self-taught and outsider art. At that particular show, he displayed a number of pieces by Willie Massey, and I flipped over a three-piece set of carved, unpainted miniature furniture. I didn’t buy them, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. So, a week or so later, I contacted Keven through his website, chatted a while, struck a deal, and made a buddy.
He’s married with kids; I’m married with dogs. He’s got a mom the next town over from mine. He’s quirky; I like quirky. We share a passion for African American quilts. You know how friendships unfold. A year into that friendship I discovered “something more.”
Turns out Kevin’s not only a go-to guy for great folk art, he’s a Nashville-based singer-songwriter-guitarist with four albums tohis credit; a song (Flowers) on Irma Thomas’s 2006 Grammy-winning album; a rapidly growing fan base including other musicians who’ve recorded his songs; and a steady schedule of festival and club dates all over the country. (I know. I should’ve paid more attention to the Holly-Costello vibe.) When I played his album O, Come Look at the Burning, it was like– Wow! Behind that low-key facade is a heart that rocks.
Now, if the name Kevin Gordon hasn’t yet hit your radar screen, you can google him, of course. Or visit our links page and follow the link to Gordon Gallery. Or, if you live near Santa Cruz, the Bay area or Portland, Oregon, you can catch him on stage in the next few weeks at one of the following venues. Check him out. And discover, as I did, that incredible “something more.”
Santa Cruz Area
When people see me at antique and folk art shows – and see the display of old rag dolls — they often ask about my personal collection. I’m not sure they believe me when I say I made it all the way to 50 owning just four dolls: a “Tiny Tears,” an Aranbee “Littlest Angel,” and a Madame Alexander “Cissette” – store-bought dolls that Santa Claus brought for Christmas.
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J Compton Gallery