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.