The artist, a Civil War veteran and 19th century dentist, carved the peculiar little figurines out of wood. He placed the musicians with their instruments in the back row, and up front, connected to metal wires, stand the dancing couples. Other macabre figures, such as a thin man playing bones and a woman spanking a baby, populate the dioramic scene.
When a crank is turned, a series of pulleys cause the pieces to move and dance in an awkward, dreamlike manner.
“There’s something bizarre and very unsettling about it,” Ned Crouch (’72), former director of the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center, said. He leaned close to the strange, elaborate piece of folk art situated in the front den of their house. His wife Jacqueline, an artist and former high school art teacher, stood next to him, smiling slightly at the piece.
“There’s a mystery about it,” she said. “There are so many different stories, and each person who views it takes from their own history and makes their own story.”
The piece, known as “The Circus,” was created sometime around the year 1900, and to look at it is like peaking into a past world of strange, anachronistic rituals and beliefs. This extraordinary work is the signature piece in a collection of 42 folk art carvings, paintings and drawings that the Crouches recently donated to Austin Peay State University.
“‘The Circus’ was one of the hardest pieces for us to give up, but everything we are giving to the University, we have dearly loved,” Crouch said. “It was just a great opportunity and time to give a collection to the University.”
The Crouch gift will join an already impressive folk art collection at APSU. For years, the University has been the home of several statues by the noted self-taught Tennessee artist E.T. Wickham and paintings by William Shackelford. In 2010, the collection received a major boost when Dr. Joe Trahern donated three sculptures -
“The Critter,” “The Eagle” and “The Lady with Two Pocketbooks” – by William Edmondson, the first African-American to have a solo show of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1937.
“It all came through this great gift of Joe Trahern,” Crouch said. “Joe could have done anything with those sculptures. He could have gone to New York with them. But he chose Austin Peay. So the ground and advance work was already laid for the University. They don’t have a lot of material folk collections, but what they have is the best, so we decided to start filling in.”
The couple began amassing their impressive folk art collection in the early 1970s, when Ned was a young sculpture student at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. They didn’t have much money, with Ned in school and Jacqueline working at a local hardware story, but they realized if they ate a little less and bought cheap wine, they could occasionally buy a painting or a sculpture by some talented, untrained artists.
The habit quickly turned into a passion, and the Crouches became close friends with major collectors and the artists they supported.
“Our collection is very personal,” Jacqueline said. “In most of the cases we met the artists, got to know them, got to see their homes and workplaces. There became a connection. It wasn’t just walking into a gallery and saying that one. It was personal.”
The Crouches hope their gift catches the attention of their fellow folk art collectors around the country. If the pieces are received and displayed well by APSU, they see the University getting more gifts and developing into a major institution for the study of southern culture.
“We have big plans for the collection,” Christopher Burawa, director of the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts, said. “We want to make it part of a unique educational program that will engage our students and the community.”
For more information on the Crouch donation or APSU’s folk art collection, contact the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts at 931-221-7876.