When I was a student at the long ago-defunct Louisville School of Art, the school gallery in the Cloisters building hosted an early exhibition of the work of Marvin Finn. I remember the gallery being filled with a menagerie of wooden animals (I purchased a small bull for $11), but also intricately tooled machines: monolithic cranes, personable bulldozers, and magnificent biplanes hung from the ceiling at daredevil angles. The retired African American gentleman making all of this within the confines of his tiny Shelby Street home in the Clarksdale housing “projects” was the talk of the town, and his work was collected by the wealthy and powerful.
Finn embodies the meaning of the Folk Art aesthetic. His love of carving wood came from watching his sharecropper father whittle as a young boy in Clio, Alabama, and his lack of any formal art education and adherence to simple forms fits the concept perfectly. He spent many years making wooden toys for his children and grandchildren so that there was also a purity in the motivation.
“There were ten boys and two girls in my family, and most of them older than I was, so I didn’t have toys except I made them,” said Finn when recalling his childhood on the farm in Clio. “I thought my old man was everything. When I was little I stood right up under him when he was whittling, and I learned it from him. I always tried to make my own toys when I was coming up as a kid. Anything that looked like a toy I would go into the woods and find me a tree and make it. But I remember a lot of Christmases when I never even seen me a toy.” (1)
After first exhibiting at the Kentuckiana Hobby and Gift Show in 1972, Finn’s profile rose over the next ten years, even though his prices did not. In the 1980’s the show at LSA and attention from the newly formed Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now KMAC) cemented Finn’s status as one of the most beloved and respected artists in Louisville.
Eighteen years ago, Louisville Mayor David Armstrong and an advisory committee developed the concept for the use of Marvin Finn’s work as the inspiration for a major public art initiative.
“Public art is more than an amenity in the streetscapes and open spaces in our city,” said Mayor Armstrong. “It evokes pride and awe in our city from passers-by, and it is a gift to every citizen.”
Thus, the idea for the flock of Finn’s was hatched. Dozens of owners of Finn’s art presented their originals to the Mayor’s advisory committee and 32 pieces were selected as models for the public art project. Colorful steel renditions, some as tall as nine feet, were cut out of half-inch thick steel and painted with graffiti proof paint by a cadre of artists mimicking the unique colors and patterns of Finn’s work. In April of 2001, the “Flock of Finns” landed in Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville.(2)
Finn’s work bridges traditional distinctions between craft and art. Although there is little functionality in the work, they began as toys but were almost never vessels or implements, it always expressed the naivete often associated with folk art, with a balance of rustic imagery and polished finish that enabled him to be embraced as easily by the fine art culture. The bright patterns of color were also seen as evocative of West African art, a connection to ancestry that is another important thread found in most Folk Art.
Today, Finn’s inspiration continues unabated, as many Louisville art teachers’ curriculum includes a ”Marvin Finn” project, most often in which children make their own brightly painted cut out birds.
(1) (2) marvinfinnweebly.com
Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2018 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved. In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.