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Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing

April 15–September 14, 2008

Asa Ames is a mysterious and tragic figure. The young sculptor died from consumption when he was 27 years, 7 months, and 7 days old. Though his own life was short, he immortalized family members and neighbors in the vicinity of Evans, Erie County, New York, in a legacy of twelve three-dimensional portraits of children and young adults carved between 1847 and his death in 1851.

During the period that Ames was working in Evans, there was little precedent for portraits in wood. Rare examples were carved in a classical style by some talented shipcarvers, but Ames’s veristic life-size bust-, waist-, and full-length portraits have few antecedents in American folk sculpture. One of the most intriguing artworks is a startling waist-length carving of a little girl in a pleated red dress with phrenological markings on her head, but the images that come most readily to mind are sensitive carvings of actual children that seem to embody a state of childhood innocence.

The individuation and ethereal solemnity of the carvings derive from sculptural traditions with a long lineage, from Roman portrait busts to marble statuary associated with the rural cemetery movement that was burgeoning in the 1840s. Ames’s sense of himself as an artist may be implied in the Federal Census of 1850, in which his occupation is listed as “sculpturing.” Details of Ames’s own history remain shrouded in shadow, but the work of his hands illuminates the meaningful and personal nature of the lives he captured so beautifully in wood.


Phrenological Head
Attributed to Asa Ames (1823–1851)
Evans, New York
c. 1850
Paint on wood
16 3/8 x 13 x 7 1/8 in.
American Folk Art Museum, bequest of Jeanette Virgin, 1981.24.1
Photo by John Parnell, New York

Daguerreotype of Asa Ames
Artist unidentified; plate marked Scovills (active c. 1839 1850)
New York State
3 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 5/8 in.
Collection of John T. Ames, Austin, Texas, loaned in loving memory of John T. and LaVeda R. Ames
Photo courtesy John T. Ames, Austin, Texas

Head of a Boy
Asa Ames (1823–1851)
Evans, New York
Dated March 1847
Paint on wood
18 x 16 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.
Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0402.1955
Photo by Richard Walker

Naked Child
Asa Ames (1823–1851)
Evans, New York
Dated June 1849
Paint on wood
26 x 9 x 6 in.
Private collection
Photo by Photosphere Studio, Kentwood, Michigan

Susan Ames
Asa Ames (1823–1851)
Evans, New York
Dated December 1849
Paint on wood
35 x 9 x 8 1/2 in.
Boulder History Museum, Boulder, Colorado, gift of Mrs. Arch Hogue Sr., B.156.1
Photo by Vivian Leaver-Hauschulz, Denver

Bust of a Young Man
Asa Ames (1823–1851)
Probably Angola, New York
c. 1847
Paint on yellow poplar
14 9/16 x 8 1/4 x 8 in.
Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, West Virginia, funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Harold Nichols and the 1978 Antiques Show Fund
Photo and digital image © Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, West Virginia


Museum exhibitions are supported in part by 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.

Online exhibition catalog

Folk Art 2005 article

The Clarion 1989 article

The Magazine Antiques 1982 article

Ames’s artistry has a distinct personality. His work is full of signature tics, like his careful carvings of his subjects’ hair or ears.
– Roberta Smith