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FOLK ART ISSUE

MASONIC FOLK ART PROVIDES A BRIDGE TO TODAY’S MODERN MAKERS

By Aimee Newell

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When John Luker first presented his hand-carved master’s chair in 1871 to fellow members of Swan Lodge No. 358 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, it must have been quite a sight. Along a matching set of columns and candlestands, the ornate wooden chair was a gift to mark the opening of the new lodge hall. It was crowned by a bright blue square and compass, painted with deep aqua-tinted glass mixed into the pigment. In the soft light of the lodge room, it would have glinted and sparkled spectacularly. Up and down the piece, Masonic embellishments are delicately rendered in shining metallic paint. Its shanks form columns topped with globes, while paintings depicting the five-pointed star, the candelabra, sabers, and an all-seeing eye adorn its back and sides.

The chair is an incredible work of art, and yet one that, historically speaking, isn’t likely to end up on display in a museum. In fact, relatively little is even known of its maker: Luker was not a formally trained artist, nor a very prolific one. But he—and his chair—exemplify the long and rich tradition of folk arts within Freemasonry, a relationship stretching back to the founding of the country and one that has helped shape popular culture both within and outside the fraternity.

WHAT IS FOLK ART?

Folk art resists simple definition— it’s a tradition that covers hundreds of years across the entire globe; it includes everything from 17th century African textiles to today’s county-fair crafters. Broadly speaking, however, folk art is made with a utilitarian purpose, by self-taught or informally trained craftspeople. It is hand-made, not machine-made or mass-produced. It speaks to a common culture, and like outside art and self-taught art, it exists outside of the academic mainstream.

For that reason, folk art tends to exist within close communities, often for ceremonial or practical purposes. Freemasonry, with its scores of lodge jewels, regalia, and other paraphernalia— plus its expansive symbolic language—provides a rich source of opportunities for this kind of artistic expression. As Freemasonry’s reach expanded during the late 19th century, the so-called golden age of fraternities (when American fraternal groups were conferring some 1,000 different degrees on 200,000 initiates annually), so too did the swell of ceremonial objects and regalia made for the fraternity by amateur craftspeople, makers, and artisans. The aprons, signs, and furniture used in lodge were adorned with symbols and figures that were meaningful to their owners and communities. The artists behind them were often anonymous or little-known. And yet together, they form a body of work that not only speaks to an enduring Masonic heritage, but also help provide a sort of artistic vernacular that spoke to artists outside the fraternity. With so many members and so many pieces of folk art being produced for them, the fraternity found itself on a two-way street, both inspired by the fashions of the time, while also influencing them.

Take Luker’s chair, for example. As a piece of furniture design, it’s an exultant blending of artistic styles: The faux-inlay of the paneling is typical of the mid- to late-1800s, while the X-shaped legs and curule base are 1860s Renaissance Revival. The claw feet, meanwhile, suggest Chippendale design from the 1760s. The chair, in both form and design, is practically overstuffed with meaning— a marriage of high style and common function, master craftsmanship and artistic ebullience. As both a work of mid-19th century American art and as an artifact of Masonic craft, it illustrates a unique cultural identity.

THE MASONIC MISSION

It’s no surprise that Freemasonry, with its large pool of membership, provided a market for folk arts to flourish. But the connection ran deeper than that: As artworks produced by and for everyday people, American folk art was often concerned with the same values that Masonry espoused—particularly concepts like fellowship, labor, and community.

Masonry helped provide the visual language needed to represent those values. Consider that within the first three degrees of Masonry, more than 90 different symbols are used to express tenets like brotherly love, relief, and truth. As such, a blending of Masonic and non- Masonic symbols can be seen in many works from the 18th and 19th century: Powder horns used by soldiers during the Revolutionary War were often decorated by their owners with Masonic symbols alongside signifiers of the American cause like flags, liberty caps, or shields. At home, many American Freemasons went to bed under coverlets woven with a mix of patriotic and Masonic symbols. Glass, ceramics, and household furniture also shared this decorative vocabulary.

These symbols helped forge a shared American cultural identity. For instance, a circa 1804 fire bucket owned by Zachariah Stevens of Gloucester, Mass., is decorated with a painting of the Masonic square and compass and a pair of clasped hands. The symbol, signifying fidelity within Freemasonry, also holds meaning outside the fraternity. (Clasped hands representing peace can be found going back thousands of years.) The bucket itself has no particular Masonic use; fire buckets were extremely common household goods, and one of the best weapons of the time for fighting fire. At the first outbreak of a blaze, neighborhood “bucket brigades” could form a line to pass buckets of water and help douse a housefire. In fact, Stevens was a member of the Gloucester Masonick (sic) Fire Society, which required members to “be helpful to each other in extinguishing fires… and in saving and taking the utmost care of each other’s goods.” His fire bucket, then, provides a glimpse into both the use of Masonic symbology and a slice of early 19th century American life.

EXPRESS YOURSELF

While folk art tends to stress the importance of commonly shared traditions, it also fosters individual expression: As handmade pieces, works of folk art are unique to both their owner and maker. That duality also resonates within Freemasonry, which promotes fellowship and community while encouraging members to be the best men they can be. Perhaps nowhere is this individualism more on display than in the Masonic aprons that are presented to new initiates. The tradition of personalizing Masonic aprons is a long one. For many early lodges in the United States, the apron was one of the most important signifiers of individual style—evident in scores of highly decorated and personalized aprons from the period that survive to this day. One apron, from the late 1700s and used in Massachusetts, is made of white leather and trimmed in black lace, with black lettering spelling out Memento Mori—meaning “remember death.” The inscription signifies that it was a mourning apron, possibly worn during a Masonic funeral, and invokes the passage of time that’s both a central tenet of Masonry and a common theme within many folk arts.

In addition to providing a creative outlet for early American Masons, the apron was also the canvas on which many folk artists plied their trade, like Nathan Lakeman (1804– 1835) of Salem, Mass., who along with partner Stephen Hooper advertised in local newspapers during the 1820s for “Masonic Aprons of the newest and most elegant patterns.” Several of Lakeman’s aprons feature a similar symbolic arrangement. The backs and sides of the aprons are adorned with other Masonic symbols unique to their owners—a prime example of individual expression within a common unifying tradition. As for Lakeman, a member of the Jordan Lodge in Danvers, Mass., and one of scores of similarly untrained craftspeople across the country, he may have been a talented artist, but evidently he wasn’t a particularly successful one: By 1831 Lakeman had married and taken a job as a cashier at a local bank. In 1835, at just 31 years old, he died of consumption.

Aprons may represent the most personal realm of artistic expression within Masonry, but they weren’t the only ones. Many lodges created or commissioned unique works that were meant to be shared, such as the circa-1820s lodge chest housed at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library. Lodge chests, uncommon today, were regular features of lodges during the 19th century, as most lodges met in shared spaces. The 1820 piece, which is unsigned, is painted a striking red and stenciled with columns, a stone archway, square and compass, and many other common Masonic symbols—echoing the trend of the time, when walls, furniture, and textiles frequently featured stenciled decoration. The stenciled chest, like many Masonic folk art pieces, demonstrates how larger styles and artistic trends found their way into the craft.

POST-INDUSTRIAL APPEAL

Systematic mechanization upended nearly all aspects of life in the 19th century, as the craftsmen and artisan class was largely replaced by automation. It was out of a nostalgia brought on by the industrial age that the so-called arts and crafts movement took hold, first in England during the mid- to late-1800s and soon after in the United States.

Though more academic than folk art, the arts and crafts movement stressed workmanship, natural materials, and simple aesthetics— clear references to preindustrial early American folk art. California would prove to be an important hub of the arts and crafts movement, as the style can be seen clearly to this day in the 1920s “craftsman” bungalows so popular in Pasadena and parts of the Bay Area, and in the paintings and custom furniture of artists like Arthur and Lucia Mathews, whose Furniture Shop in San Francisco served as an important design studio in the early 20th century. 

It’s in the modern incarnation of the arts and craft and “maker” movement that Masonry’s folk art tradition remains alive. Through websites like Etsy, scores of craftsmen working with leather, jewelry, and wood are creating works that harken back to their 19th century forebearers. With it has come a resurgence in interest among Masons in their own artistic heritage.

Perhaps chief among this set is Chris Holme, a custom furniture designer and Masonic woodworker (see page 13). The North Hollywood Lodge No. 542 member is the owner of The Common Gavel, where he carves and sells all manner of gavels, sounding boards, rods, and plaques, along with other Masonic-themed home goods. The business, Holme says, started with making pieces for friends or on request, until he saw a hole in the market. “When I started, almost no one was doing this commercially with any quality at all,” he says. “It was just being massproduced, stamped out somewhere.”

Instead, he blends his own aesthetic—he describes it as rusticmodern, with clean designs and warm, natural materials—with nods to the intricate, hand-carved Masonic antiques that are so much a part of the fraternity’s history. In so doing, he is providing a link to a long—and particularly proud—tradition.

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