COLLECTION: Decorative Sculpture

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Runaway Slave

ca. 1980
Origin: America, Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Overall: 14 1/2 x 40 x 3/4in. (36.8 x 101.6 x 1.9cm)
Wood and paint
Gift of Ellin and Baron Gordon
Acc. No. 2006.701.1
A carved and painted wooden plaque, some areas being carved entirely through and leaving open space. The "landscape" format is divided about evenly horizontally, with the upper half showing at far left, a white man runing after a black man. To the right of the foregoing is a roundel enclosing a slight relief carving of a man in a white shirt and black suit. To the right of the roundel is text. In the lower half of the plaque there is, at far left, a white bust portrait set beneath a log cabin. To the right of the foregoing is a group of five black men. To the right of the foregoing is a red figure riding a horse, followed by six figures walking and, in a triangular reserve, the artist's surname.
Label:Josephus Farmer took up itinerant preaching in 1922, sometimes painting banners to illustrate his evangelical messages. But he worked at odd jobs for a living and could only pursue his avocation part time. In the late 1960s, when he retired from the labor force and began preaching more steadily, he also began carving the biblical stories that, in earlier years, he had painted.
About the same time, Farmer also began carving historical subjects that had personal meaning for him. He was the son of freed slaves, so scenes like this one were poignant reminders of all that his ancestors had endured. His relief work typically incorporates areas that are entirely cut away, as is the case here. He also created three-dimensional pieces in the round and apparently favored whittling over painting, for he characterized himself as a "sculpture-worker," not a "picture-artist."

Provenance:The Gordons, AARFAM's donors, purchased this painting from the Fleischer Gallery, Philadelphia, Pa., in 1989.
Inscription(s):Inscribed on the face of the panel, at the top, in a combination of incising and painting, in assorted lettering styles, is: "A/RUNAWAY SLAVE. RICHMOND VA./1850." Partly beside and partly below the foregoing in paint only is: "A + score of Virginia Negroes sold by Their masters./Perhaps becaus [sic] of a season of poor crops and a need of cash./are on Their way To new owners. in Tennessee. Whitney's Gin./was The key ThaT unlock The Door to a whole new economic/empire."
Inscribed in paint and incised carving at lower right is: "FARMER".