Appliqued crocheted piece by Kate Clayton Donaldson
Sold at Case Antiques
I've long been intrigued by this photograph in the Library of Congress, which has been posted for several years without any identification. Lately, though, the artist is identified as Kate Clayton Donaldson who did the piece above. The photograph was taken by Doris Ulmann about 1934 for a series she did with Allen Eaton for the 1937 book Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands.
Just what was in that cardboard box? And is the woman making a quilt?
I now realize that the box is full of crocheted figures.
She is not making a quilt but rather an appliqued picture.
John C. Campbell Folk School,Hunter Library Digital Collections,
Western Carolina University
Catharen Clayton of Cherokee County was born in Kentucky on April 19,1870 and died on August 1, 1960 according to her tombstone and death certificate.
Collection of the American Museum of Folk Art
Her method seems to be
chain-stitching motifs and then assembling them onto a small piece of coarsely woven wool or linen. A prominent tree and some free-form animals link the work to traditional Indo-European imagery.
UPDATE: Dot commented: "The figures look to be made with a double crochet stitch, not chain stitch. Some of the wider vines are also one row of double crochet; others may be chain stitch."
This piece in the collection of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild is
31 inches wide.
Collection of the Asheville Art Museum
She may have dyed the yarns in the figures and the backgrounds herself.
Because it is "folk art" the thought is she was using "natural dyes" but the way the colors are fading looks more like the synthetics in the packaged dyes that were readily available in North Carolina in the 1930s.
From a Brunk Auction
Kate and her story illustrate a point about our attitudes towards the makers and the work. She is considered a folk artist but she was also a commercial artist. There are several origin stories about how she began creating her small compositions.
John C. Campbell Folk School today. It was
founded to teach marketable craft skills to local residents.
The probable truth is that in the early 1930s she was working in the kitchen of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, 10 miles from her home in Marble. Her grandson Hayden Hensley was a student at the school in the late 1920s, learning woodcarving.
She had stitched crocheted figures to an old baby blanket and liked the results well enough to show it to the people in charge of the adult education center. They were impressed, saw the commercial viability of the small piece and encouraged her to make more to sell.
Donaldson & Allen Eaton
Eaton's mission was to link crafts and rural traditions
to provide an income for Southerners.
That may be Eaton in the Doris Ulmann photo of Donaldson
showing him how she works.
The alternative, folky version of the story is that her work was inspired by "cow blankets" created by women in Italy. The caption at the Asheville Art Museum:
"Many parallels have been made between the cow blankets of Granny Donaldson and the Po Valley fashion blankets made by women in Italy. In Italy, the blankets are used to proclaim the spirit of life and are worn by cows during festivals. Donaldson never heard of the Italian cow blankets and says that she didn't own a cow when she began her first blanket, although rumors still remain that she copied the Italian blankets for her cow, Bessie."http://www.ashevilleart.org/gallery/gallery-piece/cow-blanket-1308/
Another version is that she made an appliqued blanket to keep her cow warm. This piece of functional art was noticed by a passing art lover.
The culprit in the cow blanket story may be a feature writer named Bill Sharpe, "Steeped in the Lore of North Carolina," who published an article in the Washington Star on March 2, 1946 with a few paragraphs on Donaldson and her cow blankets.
Here's one from a Slotin Folk Art Auction in 2011
And the caption:
"Farm Animal Pictorial Wall Hanging. c. 1980's. Knitted and hooked yarn on cotton backing. A few minor holes, otherwise great condition. 27" x 34"h. Provenance: Sally Cathey's Blue Ridge Weavers, NC, a copy of the envelope that Granny Donaldson used to send the work to Sally Cathey accompanies the piece. Est. $500-800."
Didn't "Granny" die in 1960?https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/10128111_383-granny-donaldson-pictorial-wall-hanging
Little Brasstown Baptist Cemetery
Donaldson at work with a crazy quilt on her chair.
Don't call them cow blankets and don't call her Granny, unless, of course you want to set my teeth on edge.
Read about Allen Eaton and his influence on the ideas of folk art and the arts and crafts movement: