Marvin Finn: Wizard of whimsical whittling
From Jan. 16, 2000
"Making objects has almost been an addiction for Marvin Finn. "I've been whittling around with junk all my life," said Finn, an internationally known folk artist from Louisville, explaining his "hobby" of making brightly colored, highly patterned animals and toys.
It is a hobby that has earned him an international reputation, with works in collections in Europe and the United States.
About 50 of his creations are on display in a retrospective, "Marvin Finn: Master Maker," which opened with a 5 to 7:30 p.m. reception Wednesday January 19, 2000, at the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery in Louisville. Finn was attendance at the reception.
Finn, born in 1917 near Clio, Ala., learned to wield a pocketknife on scrap wood and tin cans to make the toys he otherwise would not have had. With one month's formal schooling, he spent his youth at farm labor, leaving the cotton fields in 1940 to follow a brother to Kentucky. Finn settled in Louisville, married Helen Breckinridge and raised five children, supported by his odd jobs that ranged from loading barges to pumping gas.
All the time he carved toys -- toys for his kids, toys to give away, toys to brighten the maker's own heart.
After his wife died in 1966, Finn quit his odd jobs and began making toys full time. But until 1972, his art was little-known. After a friend persuaded Finn to make his first public display at the Kentuckiana Hobby and Gift Show, Finn began selling his toys for modest sums, $10 or $15 each. By 1976, he had cleared out his four-room apartment, selling his entire inventory for $450 to a private collector.
Today, Finn has garnered so many admirers that his work is an icon of savvy collecting and his gaily patterned roosters are the symbol for the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery. His works were highlighted in 1985 when the art and craft gallery opened in Louisville.
The exhibition continues at the gallery, 609 W. Main St., through March 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The exhibition is part of the "Master Makers" series on mature Kentucky artists presented annually by the gallery, sponsored by Williams Gas Pipeline-Texas Gas of Owensboro.
Marvin Finn, Louisville, Kentucky
Born 1917, Clio, Alabama
Marvin Finn, a familiar resident of Louisvilles Clarksdale public housing community, is an urban folk artist whose work is highly sought after by collectors of toys and contemporary folk art.
Finn's work reflects a lifetime of seeing the wonder in ordinary things. The view from his kitchen window is the brick walls of the apartments across the street. But the view inside Finn's mind is something else again. "I just go imagination-wise", says Finn when asked how he creates his work. "I didn't learn this out of no book. I had to leave school in the first grade and go to the field to work. But I had a hobby of drawing and painting, and I could whittle and build. And I had my imagination."
"There were ten boys and two girls in my family, and most of them older than I was, so I didn't have toys except I made them," says Finn, recalling his childhood on a farm in Clio, Alabama. "I thought my old man was everything. When I was little I stood right up under him when he was whittling, and I learned it from him. I always tried to make my own toys when I was coming up as a kid. Anything that looked like a toy I would go into the woods and find me a tree and make it. But I remember a lot of Christmases when I never even seen me a toy."
Marvin came to Louisville after the outbreak of World War II. After he married in 1952, he continued to make toys for the enjoyment of his five children. His wife Helen Breckenridge used to help him, using an electric saw to cut out the toy shapes that he had drawn. When she died in 1966, Marvin was devastated and kept making toys to help him through his grief. The older he gets the more he understands about the toys he makes. "Sometimes I wake up at one or two in the morning. I'd get up then, every morning, with something new in my mind. I get up with an idea, and I've already got a head start."
Over the years he has created whole populations of cackling barnyard chickens, haughty roosters and powerful bulls drawn from his life on the family farm. He has built heavy cranes, shovels and bulldozers like those he watched while working as a laborer in the Louisville dockyards. "Sculptors are the charm makers, creating personal protective assemblages in a very African tradition, yet overflowing with African-American improvisation," says Dr Maude Wahlman of Harvard University.
The systematic use of colored stripes, dots and dashes against a solid color background is the personal stamp of Marvin Finn. Bright, basic colors in unconventional color combinations give his animals "a certain aggressiveness, invoking associations with African art", says writer Ronni Lundy.
"I think my work is pretty good as far as I am concerned", he says. "I never did get to finish school, but I am pretty sharp with my imagination. I just do what my mind tells me to do. Maybe the good Lord plants these things in my mind. When I leave here and meet the good Lord, I ain't never going to quit making toys. That's what my mind tells me. That's heaven to me... making toys... and I look forward to it all the time."