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Museum News
13 Jan 2023

Material Witness: Folk and Self-Taught Artists at Work to Open at the American Folk Art Museum

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(New York, New York) Material Witness: Folk and Self-Taught Artists at Work will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Sq., Columbus Ave. at W. 65th St.) through October 29, 2023. Featuring nearly 150 works of art, this exhibition chronicles how artists across four centuries have utilized various components of the material world. It is curated by Brooke Wyatt, Luce Assistant Curator at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM).

Material Witness is the first in a series of thematic shows drawn from the Museum’s collection and generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The exhibitions will showcase works that promote an expansive history of American art and will be presented in the Daniel Cowin Gallery – originally established by Trustee Joyce Berger Cowin in memory of her husband, also a Trustee and champion of the Museum.

“With deep appreciation for the Henry Luce Foundation, we are excited to open the first show in this new series drawn from our expanding collection,” said Jason T. Busch, AFAM’s Becky and Bob Alexander Director & CEO. “I can think of no better space at AFAM than one named in honor of Daniel Cowin, whose legacy of generosity has been continued and advanced by our beloved Trustee, Joyce Cowin.”

Organized into four distinct sections in the Cowin Gallery, Material Witness will explore how artists learn with and through material engagement, often in ways that evade and exceed conventional frameworks for artistic training. The exhibition presents recently acquired works, including selections from the Audrey B. Heckler collection, and gifts from Sheldon M. Bonovitz, Peter Cohen, and Willett Bracken Evans.

Commented Brooke Wyatt: “The materials that comprise the objects on view do something extraordinary: they grant permission to those that interact with them to assume the role of artist and maker.”

A section titled “From the Earth” showcases practices that respect and respond to the properties of regionally-sourced materials. Highlighted are works by artists including Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Ammi Phillips, and Jesse Aaron, as well as examples of earthenware, fraktur, and watercolor paintings that were made, in part, through using materials harvested from natural environments.

Another section traces more than one hundred years in the development of camera-based images and the photographic process. Made between c. 1840-1960, the photographs on view depict accumulated and unique histories, documenting lives and becoming vessels for memory.

Works by James Castle, Charles Butler, and Consuelo “Chelo” González Amézcua will be on view alongside textile-based creations in a section that examines why makers gravitate to certain media and methods, and considers what prompts them to change their approach over time. This area of the exhibition will also showcase recently acquired works by the “Philadelphia Wireman,” who is believed to be responsible for close to twelve hundred such sculptures found in 1982 in a South Philadelphia alleyway. The motivation behind their creation remains a mystery and the identity of the artist has never been established.

A final section, “In the Spirit,” features works that embody a striving towards healing, protection, and transcendence. Artworks by Minnie Evans, Martín Ramírez, and Lonnie Holley transform found and collected materials sourced from everyday objects into vehicles for communion with spiritual and otherwordly realms.

About the American Folk Art Museum

Founded in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum engages people of all backgrounds through its collections, exhibitions, publications, and programs as the leading forum shaping the understanding and appreciation of folk and self-taught art across time and place.

About the Henry Luce Foundation

The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. A leader in art funding since 1982, the Luce Foundation’s American Art Program supports innovative museum projects nationwide that advance art-centered conversations that celebrate creativity, explore difference, and seek common ground. Learn more at


Image: Consuelo (Chelo) González Amézcua, “Scrutinare”, Del Rio, Texas, c. 1970s, Pencil and ballpoint pen on paper, 27 3/16 x 21 1/8 in., Collection of the American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler, 2018.19.1. Photo by Adam Reich.