Vintage Handmade Fabric Mola Thunderbirds from the Kunas

Thunderbird Mola 1
thunderbird mola 2

Vibrant, colorful, these molas have been stored rolled since 1978. Two large, beautifully handmade molas from the Kunas of San Blas Island and Panama each depict a thunderbird, symbolic of the myriad raptors indigenous to Central and South America. They are both muliti-layer, with no less than 10 unique colors, all cotton, and handmade. The provenance is known as these molas, as well as two I previously listed and sold, were bartered with a friend from Panama. He referred to them as “old,” in the 1970s. One of the two is so authentic one can see slight difference in the fabric, perhaps a water stain, in one area that was definitely in the fabric prior to the time at which it was sewn. Fewer and fewer molas are currently made in the traditional, labor intensive, one of a kind manner such as this pair, each 17″ high x 21″ wide with subtle differences again true to their one of a kind artisan characteristics.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment t-shirtRobert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment t-shirt

This t-shirt represents a “catalytic incident” which over twenty years ago still bears import within the art world if not our culture. The first time we experienced an exhibit devoted solely to the work of the late artist, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was in 1978 in Washington, at the Harry Lund Gallery. The Lund Gallery specialized exclusively in photography and was located around the block from the J. Edgar Hoover Building which houses the F.B.I. That night’s show and the cast of characters, including Mapplethorpe himself, produced irony related to personal freedom and civil liberties but was not fully apparent until years later. Living in Cincinnati, in October 1990, we viewed the controversial exhibit titled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment. The exhibit had begun its tour over a year prior amid controversy including cancellation of the exhibition at The Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington. The show was canceled however the shows images were projected on to the building in protest.

Seven of the artist’s images being shown at the 1990 show at the Contemporary Art Center became the subject of a trial in which, then Director of the facility, Dennis Barrie, was on trial for pandering what were being deemed obscene materials. The trial pitted liberal and conservative values in the city where we, among many, demonstrated on the steps of the county courthouse; where the six month long case proceedings were later dismissed. The Perfect Moment symbolized the beginning of a war of cultures still occurring years later particularly as it relates to public funding for the arts.

This XL t-shirt reads “FREEDOM FOR THE CREATIVE MIND” and documents the evening of June 30, 1989 where “protestors gather outside the Corcoran Gallery of Art to protest its cancellation of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. THE PROTEST CONTINUES… ”

The shirt printed by International Graphics Screen Printing was purchased at The Corcoran. The back of the tag reads: A percentage of the proceeds made through the sale of this shirt will go to benifit (spelling error) A.I.D.S research. The protest that occurred at The Corcoran Gallery of Art was organized by Bill Wooby and the Coalition of Washington Artists.” The shirt has never been worn, the tags are still on it. It has a hole approximately 1.25″ along the back side of the left arm, a sewing flaw during the manufacturing process (which could be repaired.) The shirt is clean, bright white, no yellowing, the screen print is still clear… as is the message.


wood cutter whirligig
sailor whirligig

Even the term whirligig escapes the serious intent of the weathervane which was originally developed as a utilitarian device to predict weather. A whirligig has always been perceived as a toy or product of someone’s whimsy for pleasure. Most whirligigs could be divided into two types, windmills or figures. Rather than silhouette style weathervanes, single figure, full body whirligigs were carved from a singular piece of wood. Of those whirligigs based on the human form, there are several genres into which they may be categorized. Their differences relate to the whirling mechanisms, the position of the arms, and how they relate to their wind catching paddles. Many figural whirligigs, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries themes and characters depicted figures of authority and significance. Included among such professions would have been soldiers, sailors, statesmen often on horses, and well dressed business and craftsmen. Whirligigs based on the windmill form are as diverse as the imaginations of their creators. This is evidenced by, among others, renowned folk artists David Butler and Vollis Simpson. Born in 1919, Mr. Simpson’s phantasmagorical whirling environment is located on his brother’s property, in Wilson, North Carolina. His vocation and interest in heavy machinery resulted in massive whirligigs, actually wind driven sculptural pieces, as tall as 40 feet. Born in 1898, New Orleans, Louisiana, self taught artist David Butler’s pieces were more often made of re-purposed remnants of tin metal, wood, and plastic with paint. Whether for utilitarian function or pure pleasure, wind driven weathervanes and whirligigs have become prized American collectibles with often staggering sales figures at galleries, estate sales, and auction houses particularly in the Ohio, Pennsylvania and open and down the East Coast.

Whirligig with Witch and Horse, 1918, by Charlie Burnham (dates unknown). Folk art in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA.

Whirligig with Woman Churning and Man Sawing, 1920s, artist unknown. Folk art in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (National Portrait Gallery), Washington, DC, USA.

Jack Phelps Folk Art Wood Carving

This figural painted wood carving by the artist Jack Phelps, was originally discovered in the late 80s at an antique dealer who specialized in folk art at their shop in Lebanon, Ohio. Lebanon is a small town that touts dozens of independent dealers and antique malls specializing in collectibles whether glass ware, furniture, house wares, ….

Although we have attempted over the years to discover something, anything about the artist who inscribed his signature and “Jamestown, KY” on the bottom of the base of this piece; we are as yet ¬†unsuccessful. Our best guess is that this carving was for, or of, a lodge member of a fraternal society.

Given the patina and primitive carving on this piece we believe it to be from the 40’s to 50’s.

Carved Figures from Baule, Ivory Coast from Mid 20th Century

baule carved figure
baule carved figure side view

baule carved figure side view

Our collection of carved and painted Baule figures from Mali, Ivory Coast from the mid- twentieth century, have been offered to us over the past 25 years by long and well known acquaintances of ours. One, a picker, and the other an ex-pat from Mali, Ivory Coast, West Africa. While I have no doubt, the picker is fueling one of his artistic obsessions by selling some of the pieces he would have other wise kept, Ali was sending much of his profits home to his extended family.

The Baule believe that each person has a mate of the opposite sex in the otherworld, also known as blolo. The blolo is that place where the Baule people arrive, depart, and return. Representations of the ideal partner are carved in detail including stature and physique to define and portray specific desired signs of beauty, status, age, character. The statue embodies their ideal and provides a physical symbol for offerings and ritual.

Our collection includes several genres of carved figural images, each type has its own meaning as a whole and specifically to the original owner. The significance of the figures can be complex, the figures are only truly relevant to the person who commissioned it. If the person is no longer living, the piece has no function. Or, the reason for the commission may have been temporal in nature, for instance during illness, or following crisis. Even a superficial understanding of these concepts allows one to realize how figures become available as art to collectors interested in the work not only because of the mythology but the individuality, beauty, and spirit conveyed and represented in each statue, particularly the Colonial figures, by skilled and patient carvers.

Folk/Tibal Art Rooster from Central America

folk art rooster

Carved and painted chicken/rooster from Central America, Guatemala. We purchased this folkloric piece in the early 1980s from a gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio that specialized in tribal and folk art from Mexico and Central America. The style of carving is skilled, somewhat primitive. It is 9 1/2″ tall, unsigned, and has been painted in a traditional style, a very cheery object.

Collectible Vintage European Christmas Ornaments

 Vintage European Christmas Ornaments
Vintage European Christmas Ornaments
Vintage European Christmas Ornaments

This collection of charming ornaments is made of plaster and metal with hand made fabric clothing. A friend who is a “picker” originally brought these to us. He knows we enjoy figural objects with character. One set includes a king, queen, and princess. Another includes a jester and folkish girl and finally a woodsmen and his wife. These very unusual ornaments would make a great holiday gift for a special host or hostess or anyone interested in folkloric history and dolls. Each figure is articulated with body parts joined with metal. They may be hung from a sturdy branch or other display by attaching a hook to the metal U embedded atop each figure. They convey a vintage, romanticized European quality.

Hand-woven Raffia and Grass Kuba Cloth from Zaire

Kuba Cloth
Kuba Cloth
Kuba Cloth edge
17″ x 17″ (larger diamond)
Kuba Cloth
Kuba Cloth
18″ x 18″ (small diamond)
Kuba Cloth
Kuba Cloth
18″ x 23″ (zig zag)

The patterns on these three vintage pieces of grass and raffia Kuba cloth are simple yet so intricate given their hand-woven origin. We take much for granted while technology reduces the time involved in the design, planning, and the actual creation of the textiles which provide us with warmth, comfort, or embellishment. The technique employed in making Kuba cloth is similar to that of making a hand knotted carpet or the weaving of a kilim. Rather than knotting or weaving wool, raffia palm is used. The two sides appear different the darker dyed grass pattern is more defined on the front side than the back. Functional, the cloths sometimes serve as individual floor mats.

These Kuba cloths or floor mats are from Zaire, now known a the Democratic Republic of Congo. The process is all by eye and memory. The cloth squares are first woven by the men and then embellished by the women.The center of the design is a cut pile embroidery, they insert tufts of grass into the weave and then clip. Over time, the textured relief becomes more matted.

The African Conservancy states that, “it takes about a month of regular work for a woman to complete a small square of Kuba embroidery using a laborious technique that includes dying, detailed needlework and clipping individual tufts. Except for novices, designs are created as the crafter proceeds, usually elaborating a new combination from the more than 200 familiar patterns known designs, most which are identified by name. The same patterns are used on other Kuba art forms, including wood sculpture, metalworking, mat making, and women’s body scarification. Although the regular interlacing on the background cloth promotes a regular and symmetrical design, Kuba artists favor an improvisational, fluid effect that plays with deliberate asymmetries and pattern variation, creating the exquisite workmanship that distinguishes this native art form.”

The cloth’s pattern is symbolic, tied to the after-life. The precision and correctness of the pattern is also significant, enabling the clan member to be recognized by ancestors in the after-life. The cloths are prized as heirlooms to be passed down from generation to generation.

The abstract patterning is said to have been a “source of inspiration to artists such as Klee, Picasso, and Braque. Matisse was such a fan that he displayed pieces of his extensive Kuba cloth collection on the walls of his studio.”

More specific ethnographic information regarding the process and significance may be found by visiting the site of The African Conservancy.