Exhibit features legacies of an artistic Amish boy

February 23, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Claude Yoder, the artistic Amish boy, knew two kinds of furrows -- those in the fields he plowed in Western Maryland and those in the brows of elders, who didn't care for the way he used his hands.

Adults frowned upon the boy's sketching and carving. Art had no utility in the Amish world. The clothing was drab and did not vary. Amish girls played with faceless dolls dressed as Amish girls. The religion forbade the making of "graven images unto God." Repeatedly, Claude was told not to waste his time. Repeatedly, he was disciplined for "doing art."

But the Amish boy, the seventh of 17 children, would not, could not allow his artistic yearnings to be buried in the farm fields near Grantsville.

And as much as the furrowed brows of adults frightened him, they also excited him. He must have been fascinated with muscle and skin, subtle wrinkles and deep facial trenches, the color and texture and shape of people and things. Claude Yoder had the ability to see into, even beyond, the people and things around him -- the stern Amish elders, the fields, the hills, rock and wood.

"I can't pass a woodpile without seeing something to carve," he often said.

"A piece of wood tells you what it wants to be, but sometimes you start carving and you see something else. I'm sure that the wood doesn't care if I change its mind a bit."

Claude Yoder, who died in 1991 at age 87, left a legacy in stone and wood -- dozens of carvings of men, women, birds, dogs, marvelous things that show a technically naive but earthy sense of form and texture.

He carved large eagles from big, old tree crotches and summoned hawks out of maple bowling pins scavenged from a factory. He used logs, roots, branches, seeds, nut shells, cork and stone to fashion his pieces.

You can see a good many of them in the fine arts center at Catonsville Community College, though Claude Yoder would have chuckled at the linkage of "fine art" with anything by his hand.

The exhibit is called "Amish Father/City Son" because it features another piece of the Claude Yoder legacy -- a son who went off to become an artist himself.

Olin Yoder was born on his father's farm in 1929 and grew up in the Amish-Mennonite community around Grantsville in Garrett County. At 18, Olin Yoder broke from that life, then within a few years headed for the lights at the other end of the state. He has lived and worked, as an artist and art instructor, in the Baltimore area ever since.

His oil paintings -- in brilliant, almost garish, colors -- depict scenes and objects of the modern urban world, and they are as akin to his father's creations as new jazz to Shaker hymn, as tenor sax to hammered dulcimer.

Olin Yoder paints with such exuberance -- in full summer sunlight -- that he appears to be still celebrating his long-ago break from the black-and-white world of the Amish and Mennonite. Every brush stroke seems to yell, "Free at last!" And his work is excellent -- as sophisticated and as technically sound as Claude Yoder's work is folksy, crude and unintentionally surreal.

"My first recollections are sitting on my father's lap as he would sketch on the back of oilcloth by kerosene lamp at the kitchen table," Olin Yoder says. "I would request animals, people and objects, and he would draw them. This he would do after plowing, milking, harvesting or any of the myriad of chores that are part of farming. I assumed that all fathers did that.

"Christmas would bring an electric pen, watercolor sets, cheap brushes and paper. Some fathers played with their son's train set. My father shared my gifts."

In 1958, Olin Yoder received a master's of fine arts from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. By then, his father had drifted from the Amish culture to the less insular Mennonite religion, bought and lost his farm, opened and closed a meat market, and taken a job with the Celanese Corp. in Cumberland.

Through it all, he kept carving.

"His aspirations were to make his objects as real as possible, but his lack of training curtailed his wishes," Olin Yoder says. "His visionary approach is the charm and uniqueness of his work, though he never knew it."

Once, the educated son showed the father a photograph of Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses. At the time, Claude Yoder was fixing to make a Moses from an eight-foot log. He looked at Michelangelo's version and told Olin, "That isn't my Moses. He's too mean and stern. No group would follow a man of that demeanor for 40 years in the wilderness. My Moses will be kind and understanding, a man that people would love and follow."

The Yoder Moses, complete with woodpecker wound in its side, is the first thing you see upon entering "Amish Father/City Son." It's a delight to regard, and I think even Claude's long-departed Amish elders would not have frowned upon it.

The exhibit runs through March 22 in the Fine and Performing Arts Center, Catonsville Community College, 800 S. Rolling Road. Gallery hours are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. A reception will be held March 3 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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