june 2014 3 mary lucy bivins creates german folk...

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  • Magazine June 2014 3www.artsmagazine.info

    Mary Lucy Bivins creates German folk art

    Bivins ... continued on page 6

    Thousands have seen Mary Lucy Bivins on the stage at Barter Theatre, but many may not have seen another of her talents – she is a folk artist specializing in fraktur.

    Fraktur is an 18th and 19th-century folk art tradition. The name is derived from the broken or “fractured” appearance of the lettering. “It was the layman’s version of manuscript illumination, originally practiced by scribes in the middle ages,” says Bivins.

    “German immigrants brought this tradition to America. It became particularly identified with Pennsylvania German settlers. Among the early artists were clergymen, who traveled to communities documenting births

    and marriages. It was taught in German parochial schools as a tool for writing and penmanship. The tradition died out among Germanic communities with the advent of the public school system.”

    Bivins discoved fraktur when she “walked away from the stage for a decade when I married and had children. I was home with my sons and fraktur became a creative outlet.”

    She is self-taught in the art. “I do not have a background or training in visual arts. That is why this folk art tradition is a perfect fit for me.” Having a BA in history and living in Old Salem surrounded by other decorative art forms also contributed to her interest in pursuing fraktur. “Interestingly, while Salem, N.C.,

    was founded by the Moravian sect, they did not practice fraktur, which was largely practiced among the Amish, Mennonite and Lutheran sects wherever they settled,” she points out.

    So Bivins, part historian and part artist, used the talents of both disciplines to find her own way to fraktur. She combined her interest in calligraphy, drawing and painting to help guide her. “The result was my becoming a contemporary fraktur artist in the 1970s, not only to nurture my creativity, but also to raise awareness of this early art form. Happily, it blossomed into a business of commissioned work for roughly a decade.

    “I studied the work of early artists and the history of their tradition. This included their social and cultural history, religion and the German language. I traveled to museums in this country and Europe to study early pieces. I then taught myself the calligraphy, the actual fraktur lettering. After much, much practice, I developed my own style of illumination while working within the tradition. This includes traditional types of documents, the size of documents or drawings and the traditional motifs and colors.

    “In addition to the satisfaction of producing hundreds of documents over the years, a particular honor was the purchase of

    When Leila Cartier first came up with the idea for “Artists by Trade,” it was a different concept than what actually ended up in the gallery at William King Museum of Art.

    “I was looking to present the artistry of a Barter Theatre production in a museum setting,” Cartier says. “This would allow patrons of the museum and theater an opportunity to see the costumes, props, paintings and other ephemera up close rather than from the distance of sitting in the audience.

    “It eventually occurred to me that any person drawn to work at Barter Theatre might have a hidden talent. Rather than focus on the stage productions, I chose to invite anyone on staff, including the actors and designers as well as the educators and administrators, to submit independent projects for the exhibition. The title was simple since it embodied the history of Barter Theatre and the present-day opportunity for artists to find employment based on their artistic talents.”Leila Cartier

    Behind the scenes with the curatorThe exhibit features paintings, costume

    pieces, digital sound and graphics, and installations. They run the gamut from traditional craft, such as Mary Lucy Bivins’ fraktur to new technologies, such as Miles Polaski’s sound board and visual projection.

    “For resident actor Bivins, this exhibition was an opportunity to revisit and showcase her interest in calligraphy and the art of fraktur, a tradition brought to the Appalachians by German immigrants. Fraktur has served as official records for special occasions such as births, baptisms and marriages. Bivins was excited by the opportunity to create several new pieces for this exhibition, which include colorful drawings that adorn the calligraphic lettering. Each fraktur is displayed with its English translations.

    “Across the gallery is the most high-

    tech project in the show, ‘The MASHine,’ by Miles Polaski, Barter Theatre’s sound designer and engineer. A ‘mashup’ is known as blending two or more songs together, and Polaski created a sound board specifically for

    this project. It features alternating red and black buttons for gallery patrons to mashup music on their own. The hypnotic visual projection accompanying the sound spirals and pulsates as every vocal or instrumental track is changed. Polaski’s intended outcome was renewed appreciation for different genres and generations of music as well as an opportunity to experience a bit of magic.

    “Resident actor Eugene Wolf’s

    installation entitled “I Can See Russia from the Church of Christ (Anchored in Love)” is a vignette of his childhood living room. Wolf recently travelled to Russia to play traditional songs from Appalachia in hopes of exploring universalities between the cultures that have been at odds for decades. Moreover, the early influence of his grandmother, Mamaw, and his adoration of her is intuitively layered into the project. While sitting on the wingback chair and watching video of Wolf singing in Russia, guests will notice a small shrine of personal photographs, the Bible, and relics of Russian culture climbing toward

    my work by the curator of the early fraktur collection at the Philadelphia Free Library. The PFL houses the largest collection of early fraktur in the country. As a contemporary artist working within the tradition, this was an exciting moment of validation.”

    When she was asked by Leila Cartier, curator of the “Artists by Trade” exhibit, to be a part of the exhibit, she was surprised. “I’m not a contemporary artist, and I emailed Leila and told her the type of art I did. To my surprise, she’d heard of fraktur and wanted to include my folk art in the exhibit.”

    Mary Lucy Bivins’ artwork is on display at William King Museum of Art.

    Curator ... continued on page 6