Behind the Scenes of Harvest Tools
Harvest Tools is oil on canvas and was painted in 1973 (60"x44").
These tools were owned by Floyd Woodbeck who, as you may remember, was the subject painting of the first blog post in this Behind the Scenes series. They and most of his tools were destroyed in a fire when his cabin burned down.
When dancer/choreographer Rudy Perez saw this painting he said it reminded him of Martha Graham. As has been said, Graham is to modern dance as Picasso is to modern painting and Stravinsky to music. Perez was responding to the energy, rhythm and simplicity of the design - a paring down to essentials.
This arrangement of tools includes a scythe with a cradle, a two-pronged fork and a flail for threshing. These are the three main tools which would have been used to harvest wheat in an earlier day. *The cradle was used to gather the straw as it is cut and to deposit it in a
swath. At the end of the cutting stroke, the cradle is tilted to drop
the straw in a pile. A benefit of using the cradle is that it did not require stooping. Also, substantially more grain could be cut in a day with the
cradle.The two-pronged fork was used to pick up and move the straw and the flail, which is made of two sticks connected with a chain link, was used to strike a pile
of grain, separating the wheat from the chaff. This was known as threshing. These tools were used by farmers well into the 1920s, when the age of machinery was ushered in. Small farms continued to use these tools.
When Francis first came to Sheffield, Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he would go with Floyd to various secondhand stores where you could find boxes of tools, once so important to the livelihood of the local farmers, which were being sold for only a couple of dollars. For the most part no one knew what they were for but Floyd had worked with many of them on his father's farm.
The craftsmanship and simplicity of the tools tells a story from another time, back when farmers built their barns and fashioned the handles of the tools they used by hand. They knew the best woods to use. For example, ash was preferred for an axe handle because of its springy quality. If they would have used a brittle wood such as hickory, the handles would have snapped. Local blacksmiths would forge the blades.
Francis has an appreciation for the beauty found in the simplicity of these early tools. They were made to work perfectly for the task at hand. They were not made to be beautiful. These qualities of simplicity and truth were embodied by the Shakers, a Christian community founded by Mother Ann Lee, a Quaker, in Watervliet, New York in 1774. There was an important Shaker community in Hancock, just west of Pittsfield where Francis grew up.
By the 1960s, the Shakers had disappeared from Hancock and also from their center in nearby Mount Lebanon. However, their ability to go to the essentials of a task and craft a tool or object to fulfill the task lives on today in the buildings, tools, furniture and other household items in the present Hancock Shaker Village. As Francis puts it, "They got rid of the ornamentation and went for truth instead of beauty or simply mercenary gain. In their practicality, they created something we see as beautiful - as Thomas Merton said, "Made with God in mind."
As for the painting, Harvest Tools, the appearance of these 3 tools gives the viewer a chance to engage with them and create one's own story. Francis says, "I can give you clues, but it is the viewer who responds. That's what matters. This brings the viewer into the painting and the viewer becomes a part of the art."
Of particular note are all of the different kinds of angles and shapes. Look for the triangles and the arcs. There is a balance in this painting between the concrete and the abstract. Another interesting point is the wood of the hemlock floor. This painting was painted in the same space as the Floyd Woodbeck painting. However, in that painting, you will notice that the floor is a solid color without the boards outlined or the grain of the wood included. Francis has painted several paintings in this same space and in each painting the floor is approached differently. He allows the painting to tell him what it wants to be. The same can be said about knowing when a painting is finished. Francis states, "I know when the painting is finished when I can live its life. I give it as much time as it needs until it is right. You cannot force or dictate when a work of art is done, you have to let it speak to you in it's own time. I believe this caring is like the Shakers, who have been a great inspiration to me."
You can see Harvest Tools and 22 other Francis Cunningham originals at the Century Masters Exhibition October 2 - November 20 at the Century Association in New York.
Please email if you would like an invitation to the Opening Reception October 2, 5pm-7pm.