Friday, April 3, 2015

Eric Sloane and the Age of Wood

Eric Sloane (1905-1985) was born in New York City and named Everard Jean Hinrichs. His family was respectably upper middle class, but Sloane fought with his father, his teachers, and everyone else who had ideas about what he ought to be doing. Ignoring them, he devoted his time to art and aviation. He hung around a lot with Fredrick Goudy, an artist, inventor, and font designer who was a neighbor of his parents. From Goudy he learned to hand paint letters and design eye-catching signs. As soon as his sign-painting skills had reached a commercial level, at 14, he began to cadge jobs for himself and gradually assert his independence. He attended classes for a while at the Art Students League of New York. There he changed his name, taking Eric from the middle letters of America and Sloane from John French Sloan, one of his teachers.

Sloane had always loved hanging around the pioneer pilots flying out of Roosevelt Field, Long Island, and began to paint names and slogans on their planes. According to his autobiography, he was taught to fly by Wiley Post in exchange for teaching Post how to paint. Alas Sloane was not notably truthful about his early life, so believe that one or not as you see fit. Sloane certainly learned to fly somehow, and he fell in love with clouds. He painted them for the rest of his life. The first painting he ever sold was of clouds -- he later said he sold it to Amelia Erhardt, ahem -- and his most viewed work is a huge cloudscape that covers a whole wall of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

In 1925, at the age of 20, Sloane cut himself off from his family and worked his way across America, supporting himself as a sign painter. He kept painting formal works as well, some of clouds, others landscapes in the style of the Hudson River School. Few of his early works survive, partly because once he got rich he tried to buy them all back and destroy them.

Sloane did not start doing the sort of work I know and love until the 1950s, when he bought a Connecticut farmhouse and set about restoring it. He began to identify with early American settlers in an almost mystical way, and he formulated a theory that they lived more fully and sensed the world more keenly than their degenerate, coddled, city-dwelling descendants. In 1956 he discovered the diary of Noah Blake, the account of a teenage boy living on a New England farm in 1805; this was later published with Sloane's illustrations.

Sloane became one of America's leading authorities on old wooden buildings, especially barns, and the tools and methods used to build them. He was fascinated by the relationship that old fashioned craftsmen had to wood; one of his 30 books was titled A Reverence for Wood. Another, from which this drawing comes, is A Museum of Early American Tools.

I first discovered Sloane in the 90s, when I found that my career rather suddenly involved excavating the sites of colonial and antebellum farms. At the time I knew nothing about barns or traditional building practices, and all I knew about old woodworking tools was that I had seen a few on the walls of restaurants. I found Sloane's works to be a wonderful way of learning about these things. Plus, they're beautiful.

Some of Sloane's many wonderful diagrams showing how things were made and worked. His books are a terrific resource for anyone who needs to know about old American buildings, and a delight for the curious.

1 comment:

Susi said...

My DD laughed when We toured Asia and I took photos of the construction of the buildings. Must see Sloanes work! Thanks!