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Bellevue museum's folk art gaining an audience

A millionaire's attic full of paintings becomes a legacy of American folk art

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

By Jane Miller

Larry Moidel wanted to be curator of the John A. Hermann Jr. Memorial Art Museum in Bellevue for two simple reasons.

"The Nervous Patient, 1890" is one of the paintings made by millionaire artist John A Hermann Jr., who created a trust to run a museum to display his works in Bellevue. See more paintings in this online gallery. (John A Hermann Jr. Memorial Art Museum)

First, he lived two doors away. Second, as one of the few locals to tour the museum, he "just liked the art."

A month into the job, Moidel says he's stepped into a cache of American folk art.

In addition to the paintings that cover the walls of two floors of the house that serves as the museum, hundreds and hundreds more -- all in elaborate gold-colored frames -- are stacked in the basement and attic.

"It's one of Pittsburgh's best kept secrets," said Moidel, an Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduate who makes his living restoring paintings and antiques. "It is one of the most complete collections of any folk artist anywhere."

Moidel has become fascinated with the history and significance of Hermann, a millionaire who lived more than a century ago and who poured his life and fortune into his one great passion.

"He had the nickname 'Crazy John.' What he really wanted in life was the only thing money couldn't buy him -- he wanted to paint and be recognized for it," said Moidel, 49.

Once the artwork is cataloged, Hermann may turn out to be one of the most prolific painters in the folk genre, Moidel said.

"But right now he is unknown because he never sold a painting. Almost everything he ever painted is right here. He didn't have to sell his work to survive," Moidel said.

The collection includes roughly 1,000 paintings, mostly oils plus some watercolors.

John A Hermann Jr. painted this self-portrait in 1880. It is based on a photograph of him in his early 20s. (John A Hermann Jr. Memorial Art Museum)

He was an unschooled painter, and his early work -- Pennsylvania landscapes, Florida seascapes and other scenes created as he traveled -- fits clearly into the folk genre, marked by its unsophisticated style.

His later paintings, though -- many of them of human figures in wooded scenes -- are quite traditional and far more sophisticated, Moidel said.

"His life situation was truly unique," Moidel said. "An unschooled American painter with a huge bank account, an ability to travel anywhere, and a keen obsession to just paint -- any subject, any place.

"If he were poor and 'stuck' on the farm, I am sure that there would be an entire collection of farm scenes, assorted farm and domesticated animals, and 'Grandma By The Barn Door.' "

The quality of the work varies. "Some of the work looks like your 13-year-old could have done it. Some of it is quite sophisticated by art standards," Moidel said. "But all of it is done with great love. That's what comes through."

Moidel shared the story of John A. Hermann Jr. in the red-carpeted house on Lincoln Avenue that has served as the museum since 1976. A sign advertising free admission has enticed only handfuls of visitors -- mostly out-of-towners -- in that time.

"People in Bellevue tell me that they've been curious but have never stopped in, even when they just live down the street," Moidel said.

He is trying to change that.

Larry Moidel was stunned to find stacks of stored paintings when he took over as curator of the John A. Hermann Jr. Memorial Art Museum in Bellevue. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Some of Hermann's work will be displayed in local exhibits that will be held in conjunction with a traveling Smithsonian Institution show of 50 American folk artists, set to open in December at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

Moidel has expanded the museum's hours to include weekends, and he is having a brochure created to publicize the collection.

He also is considering reproducing some of Hermann's work as post cards and note cards, and he is generating national interest in the painter through Internet contacts.

Born in 1858, Hermann began working in his parents' leather-tanning business on East Ohio Street when he was 18. He never married and spent his weekends painting. The bulk of the collection was created after he retired at age 55.

By 1940, his home on North Harrison Avenue in Bellevue had no more space to hold his work, and he bought a 17-room mansion in the borough, where Kuhn's Market now stands. Hermann died two years later at age 84. In his will, he gave the building and a sizable trust to the borough, requesting that the money be used to create a memorial of his life's work.

The mansion was torn down in the 1950s, and the paintings were stored in the attic of the Andrew Bayne Memorial Library, where they were neglected for 20 years and many were damaged by pigeon droppings.

"The trustees at that time tried to terminate the trust," said Ella Reshko of Bellevue, one of five court-appointed trustees. Although a local judge originally terminated the trust, a Supreme Court ruling reversed it years later, forcing the trustees to buy a place to house the museum. The trust pays for maintenance and for three employees.

"Nobody has been all that interested in John Hermann until Larry came along. He loves the museum and the art. He's inspired even me," Reshko said.

Pat McArdle of Edgewood, an art dealer and local expert in American folk art, is helping with the exhibits that will be displayed at 12 local sites when the Smithsonian show is in town. The Smithsonian exhibit will feature three Pittsburgh artists, including John Kane.

"Folk painters share a glimpse of life in the past as they saw it," McArdle said. "I love it, for instance, when you see one of [Hermann's] paintings of Highland Park -- what it looked like then. It doesn't look like that now. There are very few places that have a collection anything like this."

In addition to cataloging the paintings, Moidel is repairing frames and removing the glass, which traps dirt and can damage the artwork.

He is also removing hand-lettered labels containing the title of each painting that Hermann had placed on the front of each piece. The labels will be placed on the back of the paintings so that they don't distract from the artwork.

One of the first paintings Moidel restored was titled, "As I Consider Thy Heavens in Psalms," a favorite of Margaret Wagoner, who has been the museum's hostess for the past six years.

"What a difference it made when the glass was removed," Wagoner said. "You could see things you couldn't see before. I always liked this one because you saw one thing close up, and something else far away. Everyone who comes in here loves something in his work."

Moidel found a note someone had written indicating that the elaborate frames Hermann used for his paintings are worth more than the paintings themselves, he said. "But that certainly isn't the case now," he said.

Hermann also collected art objects on his travels, including more than 300 sculptures and carved ivory tusks and whale teeth from Japan. Only a fraction of the items are on display. An attic closet contains a 100-year- old coconut, with a penciled label testifying to its origins.

"He came back from the past and touched me," said Moidel, standing in a shaft of attic light amid the paintings stacked so deep that to flip through them would cause damage. Did he mean in a ghostly sense?

"Oh, no. I feel very comfortable here," he said.

"But the former curator told me he once felt the presence of the artist standing behind him while in the Bavarian room. And there's a story about the electrician working on the third floor who swore he could hear someone calling him when no one was there," said Moidel, with a chuckle.

"It's just neat to look back in time and see what he saw," he added. "I'm excited about bringing this house back to life and helping John Hermann get the recognition he deserved."

The John A. Hermann Jr. Memorial Art Museum, 318 Lincoln Ave., has new hours. It is open noon to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed on holidays. For information, call 412-761-8008.

Jane Miller is a free-lance writer. This story was written for the North supplement to the April 17, 2002 print editions of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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