Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

January 6, 2009

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum to host traveling exhibition of Asa Ames folk art sculptures

The first traveling exhibition devoted solely to the work of 19th-century folk sculptor Asa Ames opens Feb. 1 at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

“Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing” presents nine of the 12 three-dimensional woodcarvings created by the elusive artist between 1847 and his death in 1851, most of them polychromed portraits that rank among the most compelling and sensitive American sculptures of the period.

New to the exhibition for its Williamsburg showing is one of Ames’s finest efforts, “Amanda Clayanna Armstrong,” a life-size, full-length figure of a three-year-old child on long-term loan to Colonial Williamsburg from Barbara Rice, a descendant of the subject. Amanda Armstrong was the youngest child and only daughter of Dr. Thomas Armstrong and his wife, Joanna, of Evan, N.Y. Family oral tradition holds that the Armstrongs housed and cared for the artist when he fell ill and that Ames created Amanda’s likeness in 1847 to repay the kindness.

Similarities between Amanda’s carving and Ames’s carving of his niece, “Susan Ames,” his brother Henry’s daughter, are apparent. Ames accurately described details and texture of clothing and hair through precise carving and the application of paint, resonating with conventions of painted portraiture.

Ames (1823-1851) immortalized in wood family members, neighbors and friends in Erie County, N.Y. Included in the artist’s small body of work are portraits of young men and women, and children. The finely-observed renderings have few antecedents in early American folk sculpture due to the private nature of the portraits. Like much painted portraiture of the day, the representations are iconic in their simplicity.

“Although details of Ames’s history remain shrouded in shadow, the work of his hands illuminates the meaningful and personal nature of the lives he captured so beautifully in wood,” said Barbara Luck, Colonial Williamsburg curator of paintings, drawings and sculpture. “Ames’s work bears some analogies to utilitarian carving of the time, but his conception of himself as an artist is evident in the 1850 Federal Census, where he listed his occupation as ‘sculpturing.’"

The exhibition also includes the mysterious “Phrenological Head,” probably carved circa 1850 while Ames lived in the household of Dr. Harvey B. Marvin, a physician and practitioner of alternative therapies. The carving depicts a young child with delicate features. The child’s impassive expression becomes a blank canvas for the phrenological map that is marked on her head, closely following the chart popularized by the Fowler brothers.

The forthright “Head of a Boy” probably portrays one of the artist’s brothers, allowing the viewer to sense what the artist himself may have looked like. The simplicity of the sculpture is in stark contrast to the highly embellished wood portraits of the shipcarving tradition.

“Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing” was organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, with support from the Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. & Erna D. Leir, the Gerard C. Wertkin Exhibition Fund and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The exhibition will be on view until Jan. 3, 2010.

Entrance to Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is through the Public Hospital of 1773 at 325 Francis Street between Nassau and South Henry Streets. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, Annual Museums Pass or Good Neighbor Pass.

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 guests interact with history through “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation.

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:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281