Rufus Porter School of Folk Art

I have a fondness for old things. My favorite purchase in the last year is a vintage 1800’s cupboard door that now leans against the mantelpiece in my living room. I love it for its simplicity, its wonderful original paint, and the feelings it evokes in me about life in New England in a less hectic time. Likewise, the endearing folk art designs, that at one time filled the country homes in 19th century New England, bring the same kind of joy to me. I love these designs and patterns for their quaint simplicity, their wonderful color, and the spirit of New England heritage and tradition that surrounds them.

Years ago, I remember reading the accounts by Janet Waring and other early American stenciling researchers that described their journeys to document these folk art designs and patterns. In the 1920s they began entering abandoned 18th and 19th century homes though out New England, in various stages of dilapidation, misuse, and ruin, in order to view the legacy left on the walls by the itinerant stencilers. Many of the homes had no roofs, and others had sunk into the oblivion of their own cellar holes, leaving only single walls still standing proud. I read accounts of these research pioneers crawling across broken floor boards or walking knee deep through debris and broken plaster in order to reach rooms that were still awash in the brilliant colors of the stenciled folk art designs. In her groundbreaking book Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture, Waring writes about a home she visited in Hancock, NH: “It must have been a good dwelling in its day, but only the four walls were standing when I made my visit, under the guidance of a young boy who poked through the debris for a bit of seasoned wood with which to make himself a violin. Without partitions, floor, or roof, the interior was still ablaze with color. ….As I peered through a broken window frame into what remained of the structure, it looked like a rainbow of color under the open sky. One wall lay intact, face up on the ground, showing remnants of pale rose and clear ochre. In an upper room were the familiar bells, oak leaves, and a large floral spray. The reds were still bright in the hearts which centered the flower designs in the upper hall. Green had faded to yellow, except for a single leaf in a sheltered corner which still kept its freshness.”

Inspired by these early researchers, I traveled throughout New England …from the Monadnock region of NH, to the rocky coast of Maine, from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, to the Green Mountains of Vermont…in order to view some of the few remaining original works of the itinerant stencilers. I also had the opportunity to study one of the most comprehensive bodies of work done to date on early stenciled walls in New England. This research, completed almost 30 years ago, and housed at the NH Historical Society’s Tuck Library in Concord, NH, provides a survey of 460 homes, inns, and taverns throughout New England. The researchers, Margaret and Edward Fabian of Lebanon, NH, documented and photographed hundreds of original early stenciled walls. From this study, A Sketchbook of Historic New England Walls was born! In the sketchbook, I detail approximately 40 wall designs, including the exact layout and placement of the folk art patterns and motifs. Using the templates in my sketchbook, I am able to re-create these historic compositions.

In the summer of 2005, I completed a labor of love at the circa 1817 David Damon Tavern, located in North Reading, Massachusetts. In the Historical Society’s Welcome Center, I stenciled the walls in the tradition of Moses Eaton, Jr. The period wall treatment reproduces the historic patterns and motifs found in a small inn room at the Old Falmouth Tavern, in Falmouth, Maine. Pineapples and oak leaf clusters dance across walls washed with brilliant yellow, providing a most colorful and lively arrangement. The pineapple motifs are the perfect ornament for the walls in the “Welcome Center!” For the overmantle, I selected a special treatment that includes graceful weeping willows and primitive flower baskets brimming with red and yellow wildflowers. Reminiscent of the uncomplicated days of yore in 19th century New England, the newly stenciled walls at the Welcome Center now hum with renewed life.

The images of the old abandoned homes with their crumbling interiors still proudly displaying their cheery folk art, will always tug at my heartstrings. My mission is to preserve the memories of these enchanting folk art designs and patterns, and work to ensure that they do not fade into obscurity, like the walls in the ancient homes that are now gone forever. It does my heart good to play a small part in the promotion of the historical significance surrounding this quintessential New England decorative art, and to celebrate its importance in the lives of rural New Englanders. And that is why I take these all but forgotten 19th century folk art designs and breathe new life back into them!

My professional associations include the Historical Society of Early American Decoration (HSEAD), Historic New England (SPNEA), International Decorative Artisans League, Historical Society of New Hampshire, Moultonborough Historical Society, and the Historical and Antiquarian Society of North Reading.

I make my home in the heart of North Reading, Massachusetts with my husband, Rich, and canine sidekick, Alice...

- Suzanne Korn


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