Friday, April 12, 2024

The Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska


The Flatwater Folk Art Museum – Brownville, Nebraska

John Janovy, Jr.

Let’s ask a question: What if only one percent of the vehicles slamming along I-29 between Omaha and Kansas City slowed down and took the U.S. Highway 136 exit at Rock Port, Missouri, for a nine-mile jaunt into Brownville, Nebraska, and a tour of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum?  The answer is obvious to anyone who’s visited that museum: For the remainder of their trips, and the remainder of their lives, those travelers would be wondering what was going through the minds of people who made those objects. Eventually, by the time they reached Omaha or Kansas City, they’d be pondering the role of art in the everyday lives of everyday people, remembering times that design overrode functionality in items they’d purchased, and planning to stop in Brownville again on the way home for a second, more serious and reflective, look.

We expect to be impressed with internationally recognized treasures in the world’s major museums; we’re stunned, however, by the personal impact of folk art because it makes us think about what we as individuals value beyond its monetary worth—images and pieces that remind us of our beliefs, experiences, cultural environments, and traditions—those elements that combine to make us who we’ve become since birth. Human lives are built from the circumstances of our birth and the events in which we participate, not always by choice. Piece after piece in The Flatwater Folk Art Museum’s collections seem to state that common fact about our existence. They all are powerful statements that no matter who we are, we share this very human trait with people we’ve never met and are never likely to meet, but we share that trait through their art and thus what they were thinking when they decided to make those pieces.

It’s obvious that the Flatwater Museum’s collections were assembled by director George W. Neubert with this characteristic in mind. Every piece is powerful, embedded with skill, focus, attention, and purpose by the person who made it. No matter what’s on the walls or shelves, you can envision the artist at work, not in a New York studio but maybe in a garage, out on a back porch, in a barn, or sitting at the kitchen table after children have gone to bed. Much of it seems to focus on the commonplace—shoes, a hat, fishing lures, religious figures, pottery—but handled in such a way that it acquires dignity, timelessness, and backstory. In this way, the objects remind us that all humans have dignity and backstory, and whatever they accomplish in their times on Earth can, and typically do, produce something that can seem timeless, if that something is only a memory. But when whatever they decided to make sometime during their lives ends up in a museum, everything that maker brought to the human experience becomes timeless even if the person is long gone.

The museum’s building itself, a repurposed church moved to Main Street and 6th, in a town that doesn’t have many streets, comes across as a piece of folk art itself—found, recognized as a familiar and timeless artifact, rescued, and changed into an object with a new purpose and a new message that’s a greatly expanded version of its original one. The museum director’s description of this building and its contents tells the story:

The folk art collection of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum is a collection of vernacular expressions and creations reflecting the human spirit and passion of common folk celebrating the diverse and universal traditions of life’s experiences, ceremony, and rituals.

It’s impossible to walk through this building without picking favorite pieces, then thinking about why those pieces stand out in your mind as something special. The masks remind us that our faces are our most distinctive features, and that what we do with them parallels what artists do with the idea of a human face, a way to present us with the leading issue of our time, and probably of all our history: the distinction between a kind—a species, our species, as represented by a skull in a hand-made glass-sided box titled H. SAPIEN—as opposed to an individual. Individuals, not kinds, make art, including folk art; kinds make war.

That last principle could easily have been the driving force that produced a human figure with blue legs, a red torso, and an obvious canine head, its round white eyes staring out, and a story written around the figure on its yellow background:

An old man told his grandson, my son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all . . . one is evil . . . one is good.” The boy thought about it and asked “which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “the one you feed.”

That’s exactly the kind of museum piece one remembers, especially in a world awash in violence fueled by hatred and despair.

On a more pleasant, and perhaps relaxed, note, much of one wall is occupied by fishing lures, all of them hand-made, of course, and collectively telling us something about the range of ideas people believed would help them solve a problem, namely catching a fish, and then putting those ideas into practice with their hands, pocketknives, and paint. The center piece, however, is far too large to be used as a real fishing lure unless someone was going after orcas, and the fins suggest it could have been a weathervane. Maybe in its original location, but there by a folk artist, when it pointed in a certain direction, it was time to go fishing. Its mouth full of teeth, made from nails pounded in and heads, instead of points, sticking out, could easily be the most distinctive feature of this masterpiece, a simple but powerful reminder of folk art’s fundamental nature.

Like most museums, this one both merits and inspires repeated visits. Director George W. Neubert has granted permission to take photographs, but subsequent use of those images for purposes other than as an excuse, or maybe inspiration, to try making your own folk art, will need his permission. The town of Brownville is rightfully proud of its reputation as a cultural hot spot, with the Flatwater Folk Art Museum as its centerpiece.







Saturday, January 6, 2024

From a letter written about the Ft. Benning jump school experience, spring, 1960


From a letter written to my then fiancé, now wife, in the spring of 1960:

This new place isn’t too red hot but it’s a lot better than the other BOQ. Here I have a private two-room apartment, share a bath with one other person, and the first thing I did was unload every single item out of that car. I have no idea what I’ll be doing for the next one-and-a-half months, but should find out Monday. The jumps were fine, not what I’d call real fun, but enjoyable. I guess there’s a natural or subconscious fear that keeps them from being fun, but it’s such a fascinating feeling, like being on dope maybe. You probably don’t want to hear all of the details, but since I’m vain enough to think someone might ask, you’re going to get them anyway! It’s really strange how the guys change personalities in the waiting room, everyone doing something different to keep from being scared. Number 45 sang and hummed constantly, and 47 and I laughed and kept telling each other what was going to happen if he came out too close behind me, etc., how I was going to grab his chute and collapse it, and how he was going to run my static line thru the harness so I’d get dragged behind the plane and all, real funny stuff like that. After about five inspections you get up and walk out on the runway (it’s sheer misery to walk in a parachute, they crush you from every angle). About this time I was just a little dazed but not scared, and your heart just starts beating faster and faster and faster. They sit you down in the plane and count you off and you fasten your safety belt and the plane takes off (about this time I started getting a little scared and tight). You go thru the jump commands and look up and the plane is roaring so loud you can’t think and the doors are off and the wind is blowing thru the whole plane like a tornado. Finally the first guy “stands in the door” and when they start to go is when the whole thing hits you like a ton of lead. When they start, the cable from your static line is on just starts jerking, and you think it’s going to jerk the plane apart, and you can see your buddies up there and then they’re gone. The second when that cable starts jerking is the most exciting because it just jerks you out of a daze and into a mechanical awareness; As soon as I got close to the door all the fear and excitement left and I just turned into a shuffling machine and did every movement by reflex action. I don’t remember standing in the door, or how my door position was on any of the jumps except the last one. On the first jump I was the last man out of the plane, had a good exit (my exits are pretty good!) and snapped right out. It’s pretty funny, you have to fight your way to the door because of the wind, and when you jump the prop blast (you’re traveling 130 mph) hits you and you’re gone. It’s sort of like dropping a. ping-pong ball in front of a fan, there’s no falling sensation whatsoever but only a feeling of being swept away. When you first go out it turns you sideways and then sweeps your feet out, so that you’re traveling feet first and facing upwards; as soon as your chute pulls out the prop blast blows it over your head and jerks you over so you’re traveling head first facing down; about then it opens and you feel a sort of tug at the shoulders and you’re airborne! The first jump I landed in a ditch in the mud. The wind was pretty strong, but they jumped us anyway. I hit on the side of the ditch, I was “holding a slip” (steering into the wind to decrease impact velocity) and came straight down on my feet and took all the shock on my left foot, but I did have them together, and so what would have been a broken leg was only a sprained foot; still I landed pretty hard, in the mud, tried to get right up, made it about half way m and got jerked right back down again a couple of times and finally made it up and ran around the chute and collapsed it. The second jump I started getting scared when I got close to the ground and tightened up a little, again hit like a rock, and didn’t enjoy it a bit. The third jump I was scared stiff before even boarding the plane because I knew something was going to happen, and it almost did. As soon as my chute opened I was almost on top of another guy (your chute will collapse if it gets over another) and my lines were twisted so badly I couldn’t get my head back or steer—I just kept drifting in until my feet were hitting the edge of his canopy, and I kept yelling at him to “slip away” but he didn’t hear, and I kept thinking “I’m glad we’re high enough so that if mine collapses it will fill back up again before I hit the ground!” But finally my twists came out and I was able to steer away; I did a perfect (for a change) landing and got dragged about 200 feet before I was able to get up. The fourth jump was perfect, good landing and all. The fifth one we did with about 100 lbs. of equipment, rifle, pack, and all that stuff, and we had a graduation ceremony right there on the drop zone. All in all it was a great experience.




Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Ongoing Birdbath Fauna Check



Continuing with some backyard biology, with a focus on the microscopic fauna of our birdbath. Here are a couple of YouTube videos, made four plus years apart, but I can assure you that just about any time I look at our birdbath contents under the microscope, the community of organisms is pretty similar, especially with the rotifers and Vorticella, at least as long as the heater is in there in the winter. If we clean it out in the summer, it usually takes a couple of weeks before the community starts to reappear. And where do these organisms come from? I have no idea, but there is a lot of bird traffic in that water, and birds pick up all kinds of dirt, especially the robins who are messing around in the mulch, leaves, and grass continuously. Some of you may be able to put a name on the rotifer, but rotifer identification has always been far beyond my abilities, even though in another life, I might study them instead of parasites. However, the ones you see in these videos are the same kind that show up month after month, year after year.

Video link to Birdbath Dec 20, 2015    

Video link Birdbath April 23, 2020

The two main characters in these videos, the rotifers (telescoping inverts with prominent cilia fields at their anterior ends, looking like wheels that give them their names), and the single-celled, bell-shaped, and stalked Vorticella, are filter feeders, generating water currents that sweep in small particles, e.g., bacteria, that are their food. In the rotifers, sometimes you can see a constantly moving chewing device, the mastax, which usually you must dissect out in order to accurately identify the species. One of the rotifers in this week’s video is also pregnant and you can see the egg inside her. Rotifers are notorious for having mostly female populations, and producing two kinds of eggs, one of which is relatively resistant to environmental conditions, the other of which hatches quickly and produces more females. These eggs hatch into males only during times of environmental stress and mating results in these resistant eggs. No metaphorical possibilities here at all for my writer friends.

The genus Vorticella was officially described by Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, in 1838, in his classic two-volume set: Die Infusionsthierchen als vollkommene Organismen (liberal translation: Little beasts of infusions as complete organisms.) Infusions, as presented in a previous mailing, are mixtures of water and vegetation that have been allowed to blossom over time. The UNL library has a set of Ehrenberg’s volumes in Special Collections. When I was teaching Invertebrate Zoology, we would go over there to look at the folio-sized publications, with pages turned by the gloved hand of a staff member. The students (and I too!) were always stunned at the beauty, detail, and scholarship, given that these drawings were produced with 1838 optical technology. It’s a big-time lesson in observation. I’ve attached a pdf version of his drawings of Vorticella.

On other matters, filter feeding, like you’re seeing in these videos, has a long and glorious history in the animal kingdom. Oysters and clams are filter feeders, but so are brachiopods, which are truly prominent in the fossil record over the past several hundred million years. The structures used to generate currents and trap particles differ from group to group, but are obviously effective at collecting those life-sustaining particles that are simply (“”) floating around in the environment. Again, obvious metaphorical possibilities for my writer friends.

If you’re interested, here are a couple of links to Ehrenberg. I’ve had the privilege, and experienced the wonder, of going into the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City; highly recommended if you are in the vicinity.

Linda Hall Library in Kansas City