Being Inventive

Mary AdamsThe ability to innovate within tradition is an attribute strongly admired in some media or in the shared group expressions of some folk communities.


An artist may experiment with forms, materials, and designs in response either to personal choices or to changing cultural influences in his or her life.

Merganser Ducks     
William Massey, Waddington, ca. 1970
Courtesy of private collection

Merganser Ducks

Bill Massey grew up on an island in the St. Lawrence River, where he hunted with his father for ducks to sell to the market. Because they used large rigs of decoys they made for themselves, Massey began to carve and paint as a child. Throughout his life, he continued to hunt over his own decoys, but took an interest in the growing popularity of decorative birds as well. A keen observer of nature, he made this pair of diving ducks that would never be put in the water.

"The Cow Jumped Over the Moon" 
Richard Merchant, Cape Vincent, ca. 1970s
Courtesy of Julie Worden

Merchant cow

This is one of dozens of whimsical, clever metal sculptures made by Richard Merchant, a dairy farmer who learned to weld in the United States Navy in World War I. He used recycled wire, tools, and other objects found around his farm to create a great variety of objects. Merchantís wry sense of humor led him to make bears and farm animals but also dragons and monsters, often in comic poses.

Beadwork Map of New York State
David Vernon Hopps, Akwesasne, 1968
Courtesy of Akwesasne Museum

Beadwork map

Mohawk ironworker David Hopps made this stylized map of New York State entirely of glass beads, a skill he learned from traditional beadworkers. This piece includes Mohawk, Canadian, and American symbols like the maple leaf, the Liberty Bell, American and Canadian flags, and Mohawk clan motifs. He even incorporated his image of the Empire State building, the epitome of Mohawk ironworkers’ accomplishments.

Sunflower Braided Rug
Helen Condon, Parishville, 2011
Courtesy of the Artist

Condon Sunflower

As a child, Helen Condon learned from her grandmother how to cut strips of used clothing and braid them into useful rugs for the family home. As an adult, she mastered the craft, creating designs of her own to sell and traveling around the Northeast to demonstrate and teach. She enjoys experimenting with fabrics and forms, like this colorful interpretation of a sunflower.

The Fiddling Bear
Elwood "Woody" Adams, Malone, ca. 2003
Courtesy of Ethan and Mikhail Fischer

Carving in wood with simple tools like chisels and penknives has been both an occupation and a hobby for centuries. Men at sea or in the woods passed idle time by carving useful and whimsical objects for family members and friends. Chainsaws were introduced as tools in the early 19th century, and by the 1950s a few men experimented with them to carve works of art. Woodsmen's competitions, like those still held each summer in Tupper Lake and Boonville, later began including chainsaw art contests, which has become quite sophisticated and very popular. This life-size standing bear was carved by Adams for the late attorney, Paul Fischer. Since Paul and his sons were all musical and played the fiddle, Adams gave the bear a fiddle to play and set him dancing.

Tramp Art Radio Console
Unidentified artist, Lake Luzerne
Courtesy of John & Linda Sholl

Tramp Art Radio ConsoleTramp Art Radio Console, insideObjects carved from found and scrounged wood, particularly popular in America during the Great Depression, were sometimes called tramp art. However, there is little evidence that it was a very common art form among hobos and tramps. Commercially made radio consoles like this one by Zenith in 1937 became the centerpiece of home entertainment and were treated like good furniture. While carved pieces were often put together in layers and designs to give depth to the surface, this radio console was made a little differently. It was carved in only one layer of alternating dark and light colored wood, which was applied to all the surfaces of the original cabinet and the clock, inside and out.