The Frazier History Museum’s “Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture” is an exhibition that has been about 40 years in the making. Allan Weiss — the exhibition’s “project visionary” — spent 50 years practicing law, but developed an interest in American folk art along the way.
In the early 1970s, Weiss began studying the Index of American Design, a collection that consists of approximately 18,000 watercolor renderings of American decorative art objects from the colonial period through the 19th century.
“209 or 210 were done in Kentucky,” Weiss says. “Over the years, I was able to run down and locate about 80 percent of the items that were documented in the Kentucky project, that were either owned by individuals or by institutions.”
Weiss explains that the Index of American Design was one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Projects, which were created at the height of the Great Depression.
One of the aims of the project — aside from providing about 10,000 artists with some desperately needed work — was to preserve American material folk traditions such as the handmade Shaker rug and corner cabinet.
So the artists were sent out with their watercolors, ready to record history and provide future inspiration for designers to create uniquely American designs for the 20th century.
“One of the purposes was to see if was everything just a copy or adaptation of European art,” Weiss says. “So this is the first time that anybody had ever looked at all of this saying ‘Is there something uniquely American?’”
“Kentucky by Design,” which was put together by Weiss and the Frazier curatorial team, will feature 20 original watercolor renderings of objects of material culture from the state paired with many of the original objects from Kentucky collections chosen for depiction in the Index.
The objects in the exhibition range from a corner cupboard made in 1814 by Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas Lincoln, to a Shaker Village spinning wheel. In total, over 85 Kentucky decorative objects will be on display — looking past the “uniquely American” into what constitutes uniquely Kentucky design.
The items in the exhibition are on loan from the National Gallery of Art, the American Folk Art Museum, the Speed Art Museum, Shaker Museum of South Union, and other institutions.
“Kentucky by Design: The Decorative Arts and American Culture”opens at the Frazier History Museum on August 4.