I’ve recently completed two installations at The Speed Art Museum that feature great Kentucky art.
For the exhibition Pursuing the Masterpiece, I’ve installed the fantastic Kentucky sugar desk I discussed previously. Using maps, texts, and images, the desk is placed in both its historic and antiquarian contexts. I also produced a video featuring the husband-and-wife collectors who gave the desk to the Speed. They are a remarkable pair, having spent 40 years building one of the state’s finest collections of early Kentucky antiques and art. Here’s a short clip of the husband, Bob Noe, describing the desk:
I also recently installed Modern in the Making: Design 1900-2000, which features over 50 pieces from the Speed’s collection.
Kentucky is represented by several objects, including three pieces designed by Mary Alice Hadley (1911-1965) for Louisville’s Hadley Pottery.
I’ve also included a beautiful set of turned rosewood bowls made by Kentucky’s Rude Osolnik (1915-2001), one of the United States’ great craft artisans.
Finally, Kentucky’s rich ceramic tradition is respresented by a wonderful Bybee Pottery face pitcher made in Bybee, Kentucky.
There’s nothing sweeter in Kentucky furniture than sugar furniture–that is, pieces like sugar chests, sugar boxes, and, yes, even sugar desks. Made in the state between the 1790s and the early 1850s, sugar furniture has enticed collectors for decades. Long-time collectors Bob and Norma Noe recently gave The Speed Art Museum a magnificent sugar desk made between 1810 and 1840, surely in the north-central part of the state (more on its geographic origins below).
Though small in size (it measures 31-5/8 h. x 29-1/4 w. x 13-7/8 in. d.), the desk’s visual presence is huge. A grid of figured veneers decorates its facade, an unusual feature among surviving Kentucky pieces. An inlaid star on the skirt below adds to its elegance.
The bulbous profile of the skirt along with the desk’s spidery, curved legs associate it with a group of furniture made in the Mason-Fleming-Nicholas County area. Mason County sits along the Ohio River and served as a major entry point for goods and migrants headed into the central Bluegrass region and its capital, Lexington.
Marianne Ramsey and Diane Wachs, in their landmark study, The Tuttle Muddle (2000), associate the furniture group with the cabinetmakers Gerrard Calvert, Peter Tuttle, and John Foxworthy. The three men, ultimately related through marriage, came to Kentucky from Prince William County, Virginia. Like so many others, they probably arrived via the Ohio.
Sugar also came to Kentucky off of the Ohio, arriving from the Caribbean and Louisiana via New Orleans. It was a costly commodity in early nineteenth-century Kentucky. Specialized, equally expensive pieces of furniture like this desk provided secure storage for the sugar.
The desk also reinforced sugar’s value as a status symbol. By itself, refined sugar was visually mundane–it usually was sold in cones wrapped in blue paper. Placing the sugar in a fine piece of furniture, though, proclaimed its importance. It also added a ritual dimension when the sugar was used: it had to be removed from its princely storage; bits were cut off and used to sweeten the social consumption of tea, coffee, and other drinks; and then the sugar disappeared again into the desk.
To see more Kentucky sugar furniture and related objects, visit the Kentucky Online Arts Resource and use the search term, “sugar.”
Well, we will be in the days and weeks ahead. As a counterpart to our site, The Kentucky Online Arts Resource (KOAR), look here for behind-the-scenes info on what we’re doing: sometimes research updates, sometimes news on site additions and improvements, sometimes our general thoughts on Kentucky’s artistic heritage. Who knows what we’ll come up with…
KOAR is a project of The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, the state’s oldest and largest art museum.