Certain phrases meant to be dismissive make no sense. For example, “comfort food,” a far from complimentary reference to food beneath the notice of people who apparently prefer food that makes them uncomfortable. It simply leaves more bacon and Guy Kibbee eggs for the rest of us. Another example is “calendar art,” a smug judgment handed down by people who find excellence in a painting that could have been splashed about by a juvenile chimpanzee. Or a mature one, come to think of it.
All by way of calling to mind an American artist who died suddenly thirty years ago, Eric Sloane. He was eighty and collapsed from a massive heart attack. A barrel-chested man fond of bow ties, he was noted for his drawings and oil paintings of Taos pueblos and of barns and covered bridges in New England and eastern Pennsylvania. He had a special talent for depicting clouds, and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., commissioned him to paint an enormous mural of clouds for its lobby. Alas, for all his loyal admirers, others relegate him to the tradesman’s entrance with the withering label “calendar art.”
Sloane (1905-1985) came from a well-off family in New York City, and although born Everard Hinrichs, he took the name Eric Sloane to honor his teacher, John Sloan. Eric, he said, he took from America. John Sloan was a leader of the Ashcan School, a group of artists based in New York whose paintings were often gritty street scenes, such as garbage cans in an alley. It was a new direction in realistic or even impressionistic painting, when artistic giants like John Singer Sargent were doing portraits of the great and the good or capturing the gardens of Paris or the canals of Venice.
Eric Sloane took that training from John Sloan in everyday representational art literally into another field. He saw beauty in the proportions and materials used by early American (broadly defined) farmers. Whether a stone springhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or an adobe kiva in Taos, New Mexico, Sloane loved that it was on a human scale and fit aesthetically into the terrain. Sunlight on a faded wooden door in Taos or autumn shadows on a lonely farmstead in Vermont fired Sloane’s creative sensitivity.
Sloane was also fascinated by old American tools, and he collected hundreds of handmade axes and adzes, saws and sickles. He regarded them as works of art, as much early American masterpieces as paintings by Benjamin West or Edward Hicks. Sloane used the tools he had collected as models for his paintings and drawings, but even more, he felt a mystical bond with them. “Closing your hand around a worn wooden hammer handle,” he wrote, “is very much like reaching back into the years and feeling the very hand that wore it smooth.”
That observation comes from the preface to one of Sloane’s most memorable books, Diary of an Early American Boy, first published in 1962 and still in print. It is Sloane’s edition of a diary by a fifteen year-old boy, Noah Blake; written in 1805, the diary ended up in Sloane’s possession, found by him in an old house. Sloane interspersed the diary’s laconic entries with his own narrative to explain various points and pen and ink drawings to illustrate them visually.
Noah Blake lived with his parents, Izaak and Rachel, and Noah was attracted to the neighbor’s servant girl, Sarah Trowbridge. Along with entries about back-breaking farm work, Noah’s diary has a subplot of his furtive desire for a shy girl he got to see about once a week. Usually he saw her at church, a plain form of Protestant worship he simply referred to as “meeting.” Shortly before Christmas, Noah took a bold step and slipped Sarah a note; instantly he worried about its propriety and urged her not to open it till she got home.
His possible indiscretion was having copied out for her these words: “And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another” (2 John 5). That a teenage boy’s nervous romantic advances took the form of a quotation from the King James Version of the Bible says as much about that lost world of 1805 as does Noah Blake’s record of making ink or cutting hay, of picking apples for cider or splitting firewood by hand.
Sloane’s books and paintings take us into an America almost entirely gone. Few of us grew up with a seventeenth-century translation of Scripture or a year whose rhythm was marked by planting and harvesting and preserving. Very likely today only Amish children or those of wild-eyed survivalists think of June as the time when Mother makes strawberry jam or August as the time for canning peaches, green beans, and corn. Likewise, few kids now think of winter as a seemingly endless daily loop of carrying firewood inside and ashes outside.
By age fifty, Sloane was alarmed at the fast pace of change in America. He made his case in a slim book (all his books are brief), Our Vanishing Landscape (1955), briskly readable and richly illustrated with his pen and ink drawings of barrels and barns, fences and churches, weathervanes and mills. As well as being a description and depiction of rural and small-town life that was even then giving way to suburban development and urban sprawl, it is a lament for a disappearing way of life and its values.
With help from the Stanley tool company, Sloane set up a museum near his home in the Housatonic valley. Sloane’s museum comprises his collection of early American tools, recreates his studio, and displays his paintings. He is buried on the grounds of the museum. For his fans unable to get to the sloping woods of western Connecticut, there is Michael Wigley’s invaluable coffee-table volume, Eric Sloane’s America: Paintings in Oil (2009), with a foreword by Sloane’s widow, Mimi.
While, like many others, Sloane regretted the loss of the family farm and the family shop, his calling was elsewhere. Farming and shop-keeping were not his vocation. Artist and writer, Sloane’s gift was that of an historian, showing us the spirit of Americans like the Blakes, whose family life was close to the land and closer to God.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.