Grain Painting Workshop at the Mennonite Heritage Center

I'm a technician. I'm not satisfied with ideas or book knowledge. I need to learn by doing. So, every opportunity I get, I try to learn something new about the world of material culture.

The Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA has regular workshops that teach some craft from Pennsylvania German folk art culture. Today, I joined a workshop led by Jim King to learn grain painting. That's important to me since we sell so many objects decorated with grain painting.

So what is grain painting? It's that technique you've seen on picture frames, blanket chests (like this one, cupboards--just about anything wood. It's a fanciful way of putting a patterned decoration on a painted surface. It works like this: the piece gets a coating of paint called the ground. Yellow is a nice starting point:

A wooden box with yellow ground paint

 Then, the artist applies a glaze paint that will create the grain effect. After brushing the glaze (a contrasting color, like brown or red), the artist then uses a tool or their hand to create a repeating pattern by scraping some of the glaze off the base. Combs, corn cob, sponge and finger prints all work well:

Using a tool to create a pattern in the glazeThere aren't many rules to this art. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Pennsylvania artists didn't really aim to recreate wood grain. The painters produced exuberant surface effects that show a lot of joy and delight in playing with this medium. So, now I know first-hand the anatomy, if not the art, of a grain painted surface. (Stay tuned for my finished pieces--they still need shellac and trim paint.)


Goschenhoppen Folk Festival

The Goschenhoppen Folk Festival is celebrating it's 43rd year this weekend. The festival is the primary educational event held by The Goschenhoppen Historians. The Goschenhoppen Historians was established as an educational society dedicated to learning about preserving and teaching the Pennsylvania German folk culture.

We saw a potter making redware, a wood turner making spokes for a wheel, all manner of textile crafts, and timber dressers. Central to Pennsylvania Dutch (as the English called them) life was worship. So, of course I stopped by to see the organ maker:

We stopped by a wood carver who specializes in bird carvings. He makes bird trees. These are bent sassafras branches mounted on a turned base. On the model tree, the maker attaches hand carved and painted birds. This carver had a tree with eight birds. Bird trees were a form of whimsical craft. They were made by amateurs for decoration in the home. Because they were fragile, very few have survived. The few that come to market in good condition and are of bent branch material can fetch steep prices.

We really admire and are grateful for the superb work the Goschenhoppen Historians are doing. They have acquired the Henry Antes house and surrounding 26 acres. They have a master plan for building out the site for expanded educational use. This is exciting, and we wish them the very best of success.



Captain Palmer House, Stonington, CT

Built in 1852, this house was the home for two brothers, both sea captains. They originally named the house “Pine Point” after the area between the 2 coves of Stonington.

The house has 16 rooms and was considered a marvel in its time. One bedroom contains a sink with running water, fed by a cistern on the roof which held rainwater. The Captain’s office has a built-in desk within a closet; another room has a china closet.

The older brother, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, inadvertently earned fame--he landed on Antarctica during a sailing expedition for seals. He didn’t know that’s where he was until later. Today, a section of land in Antarctica is named “Palmer Land” in honor of him.



Gilbert Stuart Homestead, Saunderstown, Rhode Island

Gilbert Stuart (December 3, 1755 – July 9, 1828) gained fame for his many portraits of George Washington. His most famous portrait is the Athenaeum Portrait. His father immigrated from Scotland in 1751 and built the mill shown in these pictures. The mill was a business venture with a partner to produce snuff from tobacco. The younger Stuart was a prodigious artist and painted the portrait of Washington that was used on the one-dollar bill.


Vanderbilt Hyde Park Cottage

Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt bought a home on this site in 1895. The original home was in bad shape, so the Vanderbilts demolished it and built this mansion in its place. It was designed by McKim, Mead and White after the syle of a European country estate. The Vanderbilts, being new money, craved what they were not: noble ancestry. Thus, money was not enough. They strove to acquire the veneer of nobility by living the lifestyle, acquiring the material possessions, and marrying into European lineage as much as possible.

In this mansion, all the furnishings are European, the exceptions being two sofas in the main hall. This, in spite the fact that the most prized furnishings then and now are American antiquities. The building represents the state of the art in modern construction techniques of the time: steel construction, central heating, interior plumbing, electricity, and its own electric generation facility.