Skinny sculpture: Carved canes are art you can carry


George H. Meyer says he collects canes; in reality, he collects skinny sculpture. A bookish, earnest, Harvard-educated lawyer in Birmingham, Mich., Mr. Meyer, 64, is the sort of man who might be expected to collect elegant gold-handled Edwardian walking sticks or sporty Victorian gadget canes with a compass set in the handle.

Mr. Meyer struts to a different beat. He is passionate about wild and expressive 19th and 20th century American folk art canes carved with snakes slithering up their wooden shafts and other predatory serpents stalking a bird, pouncing on a rat, or swallowing a pig.

Some of his canes are carved with human forms and resemble elongated sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. Several shafts display full-length figures, others busts, torsos or heads, or they have handles resembling a foot or hand, appropriate designs since many think of canes as body appendages.

Mr. Meyer never carries a cane. He walks briskly while prowling for canes at antiques shows, shops and auctions. In the last 15 years, he has amassed nearly a thousand, probably the country's largest collection of carved folk art canes.

More than 175 of Mr. Meyer's favorites are displayed in an exhibition called "Step Lively: The Art of the Folk Cane" at the Museum of American Folk Art's Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square in New York City through Sept. 13. To accompany the show, Mr. Meyer produced an illustrated book, "American Folk Art Canes: Personal Sculpture" (University of Washington Press, $65 at the museum or $69 postpaid from Sandringham Press, 100 W. Long Lake Road, Suite 100, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. 48304.)

Canes are a clue to their owner's self-image. Used since antiquity by the aged or infirm for support, walking sticks were popular with 18th century American aristocrats. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they became a status symbol and an essential element of a gentleman's attire. Canes as a fashion statement waned by World War II, but tradition-minded carvers still make them as art objects for display.

The iconography of many intricately carved and elaborately painted African-American canes is deeply rooted in centuries-old African religious traditions brought to America by slaves. These canes are "mediums of contact to a spirit world," embodying the power of "the dead, magic and sorcery," according to Ramona M. Austin, assistant curator of African, Oceanic and Americas Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, who contributed an essay to Mr. Meyer's book.

Resembling chieftains' staffs of power or conjuring canes used by healers, several African-American canes in the exhibition are carved with alligators, lizards, frogs, or terrapins, creatures believed to inhabit the watery world between the living and the dead. Unlike many Anglo-American canes, which have a shaft and handle separated by a decorative band, the generally bandless African-American examples are carved from one piece of wood, often inset with colored stones and mirrors.

While these characteristics are helpful in determining a cane's origin, Mr. Meyer, always the skeptical attorney, requires documentary evidence for firm attributions.

Cane carving, the whittler's art, had its heyday after the Civil War until about 1920. Men often sat alone or among friends and put a jackknife to a piece of wood to record their memories and feelings. Mr. Meyer compares the importance of cane carving among men to quilt making by women. Unlike quilts or large sculpture which can be appreciated at a distance, most carved canes need to be held and turned slowly, their designs read like a book.

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