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November 12, 2008

New folk art exhibition explores an outdoor world of whimsy

A fascinating array of folk art meant for the great outdoors comprises the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “Sidewalks to Rooftops: Outdoor Folk Art,” opening Dec. 20.

With the vast majority of objects drawn from the permanent collections of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the exhibition bears witness to the creative spirit that once enlivened the American landscape through 19th- and 20th-century artworks that were exposed to the elements and survived. “Sidewalks to Rooftops” presents signboards, storefront figures, weather vanes, marine carvings, whirligigs, carousel animals and other objects originally intended for use outdoors.

“The objects in this exhibition were made to be installed out of doors, so weather has taken a toll on them,” said Barbara Luck, curator of paintings, drawings and sculpture. “Guests will see objects in a wide variety of conditions because of their use, exposure and maintenance during their useful life.”

Some of the objects in the exhibit have been previously displayed; others have not been seen for many years. Some have never been displayed, and several old favorites have been re-interpreted. Further study and evaluation prompted revisions of the paint schemes of a figurehead and two tobacconist figures, while an important circus carving will be shown newly cleaned to reveal a resplendent gilded surface. Text and graphics provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s conservation lab will explain some of the condition problems of one of the exhibit’s large woodcarvings, including an analysis of its various, multiple paint layers.

The exhibit celebrates the 19th-century predecessors of modern advertising, including painted signboards featuring eye-catching symbols and three-dimensional trade figures—such as cigar store Indians—that have largely disappeared from today’s sidewalks, building facades and countertops. Early weathervanes sometimes served as advertising symbols, but most simply signaled shifting winds and changing weather patterns. As they became more popular, homeowners and businesses installed them atop their homes, barns and buildings for their decorative appeal, and many structures were considered incomplete without one, be it a handmade one-of-a-kind or an elegant weathervane factory fabricated. Breeze-activated whirligigs—largely whimsical and lacking any utilitarian function—decorated grounds and amused on-lookers in earlier times, just as current forms of yard art continue to do today.

Circus and carnival culture entertains and fascinates young and old alike. The exhibition’s simulated old-fashioned merry-go-round will enchant visitors with carved and painted wooden animals from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although often factory-produced, these imaginative creatures were individually carved—not stamped out of molds. Diverse forms, dramatic stances, colorful surfaces, and incredible detailing reveal their makers’ clear understanding of childhood’s most cherished fantasies.

Shown along a re-created city wharf, maritime carvings set sail for an era when ships, yachts and boats were routinely, sometimes elaborately, decorated with inspiring symbols and designs, including figureheads, sternboard carvings and an eagle from a steamboat pilot house.

The five-year exhibition, “Sidewalks to Rooftops: Outdoor Folk Art” will be on view through 2013. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, annual museums pass or Good Neighbor card.

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, comprising more than 5,000 folk art objects made in America during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and embracing most categories of American folk art by well-known folk artists.

Contained within the same facility since February 2007, the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are comprised of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.

Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution for its guests, it also invites them to interact with history. “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation, is a 2008 Rand McNally Best-of-the-Road™ Editor’s Pick. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

Media Contact:
Penna Rogers
(757) 220-7121