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updated: 4/9/2013 3:45 PM

DuPage historical museum exhibit celebrates folk art

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  • This original Sheldon Peck portrait of an unknown gentleman was likely painted about 1830 in New York. On loan from a private collector, the portrait is one of six Peck paintings included in the folk art exhibit.

      This original Sheldon Peck portrait of an unknown gentleman was likely painted about 1830 in New York. On loan from a private collector, the portrait is one of six Peck paintings included in the folk art exhibit.
    Courtesy of Wheaton Park District

  • Museum curator Sara Arnas holds up a hand-carved Teddy Roosevelt walking stick on loan from the Aurora Historical Society. The walking stick commemorates Roosevelt's visit to Aurora and is an example of folk art with a political theme.

       Museum curator Sara Arnas holds up a hand-carved Teddy Roosevelt walking stick on loan from the Aurora Historical Society. The walking stick commemorates Roosevelt's visit to Aurora and is an example of folk art with a political theme.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • DuPage County Historical Museum Curator Sara Arnas shows hand-painted, hand-carved decoys that are part of the folk art exhibit. The decoys were used in duck hunting.

       DuPage County Historical Museum Curator Sara Arnas shows hand-painted, hand-carved decoys that are part of the folk art exhibit. The decoys were used in duck hunting.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Weather vanes also served as lightning rods and became common fixtures on Midwest buildings. This one with a car might have been on top of a garage, while one shaped like a horse might have stood over a barn.

       Weather vanes also served as lightning rods and became common fixtures on Midwest buildings. This one with a car might have been on top of a garage, while one shaped like a horse might have stood over a barn.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Weather vanes and windmill weights are some of the artifacts featured in the "Early Illinois Folk Art 1825-1925" exhibit opening this week at the DuPage County Historical Museum.

       Weather vanes and windmill weights are some of the artifacts featured in the "Early Illinois Folk Art 1825-1925" exhibit opening this week at the DuPage County Historical Museum.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • This hot dog roller is an example of how inventive folk art is used in everyday life.

       This hot dog roller is an example of how inventive folk art is used in everyday life.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

Nineteenth-century portrait painter Sheldon Peck would be amazed at the prices his work attracts today, said Sara Arnas, curator at the DuPage County Historical Museum.

The self-taught, itinerant artist who settled in Lombard, painted portraits of prominent citizens of the day for $50 a picture. Now various Internet sites report some of his portraits being valued at $200,000 and up.

"I'm sure he would never imagine how popular his work is now," Arnas said.

Six original Peck portraits are part of the "Early Illinois Folk Art 1825-1925" exhibit running April 13 to Sept. 15 at the museum, 102 E. Wesley St., Wheaton. A Preview Night from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 11, allows guests to meet some of the collectors and docents who contributed to the display, while enjoying cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Tickets to the preview are $50.

Peck, whose homestead may be visited in Lombard, is perhaps DuPage County's most prominent folk artist. But the entire folk art display is the largest changing exhibit the museum has ever presented, with more than 100 artifacts spread over three floors. Many were made by amateur artists and craftsmen whose names remain unknown, but who contributed to an age of progress.

"Folk art is the innovative spirit of the individual. The individual doesn't have to be educated in what he's doing," said museum foundation board member Bob Jacobsen of Wheaton, who first proposed the exhibit.

Jacobsen, who spent his career in manufacturing, said he believes folk art of the 19th and early 20th centuries exemplifies the type of creativity and innovation needed in industry today.

"Books are being written about innovation and creativity. Understanding history ties into that," he said.

Take the collection of windmill weights and weather vanes in the exhibit, for instance. During the end-of-summer droughts that brought heat lightning, the weather vanes also served as lightning rods and became a fixture on farm buildings.

Windmill weights were another result of creative problem-solving.

"People needed water and plenty of it," Jacobsen explained in a news release on the exhibit. "Farmers needed water. Trains needed it. But no one could afford the massive windmills they built back East. People made smaller, affordable ones with big blades to pull the water from underground. Problem was, those prairie winds from the west would knock the small windmills over."

Heavy windmill weights kept Midwest windmills from toppling to the ground. Wanting the weights to be decorative as well as utilitarian, windmill manufacturers turned out weights in the shape of horses, roasters, bulls and, less successfully, squirrels.

"Squirrels were viewed as vermin, and no one wanted that," Arnas said.

Many of the windmill manufacturers were located in Elgin and Batavia. Museum staff made several visits to the windmills on the Batavia Riverwalk and have included a short video of how windmills work, Arnas said.

The exhibit took about two years to put together. While some items are from the museum's own collection, others are on loan from museums throughout Illinois and from private collectors across the country, Arnas said.

"We did quite a bit of traveling," she said. "It's been quite a lot of work, but it's been worth it."

The folk art gives a window to everyday life. The popularity of duck hunting in Illinois is evidenced by the number of duck decoys in the exhibit. Hand-carved, each decoy is different.

"They're so intricate. Everything is so detailed," Arnas said.

Other categories in the exhibit include coverlets; pottery; paintings, prints and calligraphy; lighting and tinware; domestic items; and whirligigs. Whirligigs were lawn art with moving parts that could include a pleasant flying or tractor with wheels turning.

"Their specialness comes from the fact they're homemade," Arnas said.

Visitors to the exhibit may come away with a new appreciation of items they find in their own homes, she said.

"It's been neat to realize how people surround themselves in folk art every day and don't realize it," Arnas said.

Several interactive stations help introduce children to folk art. They'll be able to don props and draw portraits in the portrait studio, practice quilt stitches at the community quilt display and see how a model windmill works.

In celebration of the exhibit, the museum has put together a commemorative catalog, "Early Illinois Folk Art 1825 -1925," the first book ever published by the Wheaton Park District, which operates the museum. The book will be available for $20 in the museum's gift shop.

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