BROWNVILLE — Driving west down Main Street, what appears to be a classic American Prairie Gothic wooden church comes into view.
Then the eye catches what looks like Allis Chalmers machinery sitting in the churchyard. Getting closer, a sculpture of an eagle can be seen on the steps leading into the building.
The church, you see, no longer is a church. It’s the home of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum.
The museum, which will collect and display traditional folk art — quilts, samplers and weather vanes along with naive expressions in painting, sculpture and ceramics, commercial art and outsider art — won't open until next year.
But Director George Neubert is getting the old church ever closer to becoming what almost certainly will turn into a prime attraction for Nebraska and the historic town on the Missouri River.
Neubert, director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden from 1983 to 1999, bought property in Brownville when he worked in Lincoln.
After five years as director and curator of contemporary art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Neubert “retired” to Brownville in 2004.
That’s when he started the Flatwater Art Foundation and began work on creating the museum.
“I had become kind of disinterested in the next generation of M.F.A. artists,” Neubert said. “I’d done a Native American show, a folk art show and had, over the years, accumulated lots of odds and ends that were considered folk art. I thought, ‘Why not do a folk art museum? It would really complement this historical setting.’”
Like all museums, Neubert’s effort to create the Flatwater Folk Art Museum is tri-fold — getting a building, building a collection and paying for both and for continuing operations.
The building was chosen based on what already existed in Brownville. The Brownville Concert Hall sits on the foundation of the Brownville Episcopal Church, the body of the building a church that was brought in from Peru. The Brownville Village Theater is housed in an old church as well.
“I thought, ‘What we need is a church that houses the visual arts and Americana,'" Neubert said.
The church that is becoming the museum was found in Howe, a nearly extinct Nemaha County village. It had been abandoned and was available for no cost. But it had to be moved more than 10 miles. “The so-called free wasn’t free,” Neubert said with a laugh.
Restoration and conversion of the church into a museum are ongoing. A heating and air-conditioning system has been installed as have a restroom and small kitchen. The interior has been divided to create a gallery on the raised front of the church where the pulpit would have been.
But the walls are stripped down to studs, the ceiling unfinished and the windows have to be replaced. When that work is completed, museum-style track lighting and “floating” walls will be installed, the latter allowing for sectioning and the display of a greater number of works.
The space, however, isn’t entirely devoid of artwork.
Three key pieces that illustrate the nature of the museum stand covered in cloth in the old sanctuary.
In the pulpit gallery is a cigar store Indian that sat in front of Joe’s Pipe Shop in Lawrence, Kan., for about 80 years. The painted wooden sculpture likely is more than 100 years old. “It’s a wonderful old piece,” Neubert said. “It’s not politically correct today. But it is a great example of a kind of folk art and a kind of commercial art.”
Next to it on a table is a carved wooden sculpture of Ray Charles playing a piano. Created by Shane Campbell in 2006, the piece is an outsider art classic, with Charles’ biography written on one side of the piano, song lyrics covering the rest.
In the main gallery is a running rooster taken from an old carousel. Beautifully painted and preserved, the wooden rooster is a striking representation of the seats used on carousels, which peaked in the United States in the early 20th century and now are nearly gone.
It was purchased for the museum by Ruth Whitney McCauley, a Grand Island woman who once had a folk art shop and is one of Flatwater’s most prominent patrons.
“She saw this about a year ago when it was coming up for sale,” Neubert said. “She buys it and just ships it here. … She’s been a visionary for years. I got a call from her about five years ago, when I started putting together the collection. I stopped to see her in Grand Island. She has a strong collection and a great interest in what we’re doing.”
The three pieces in the old sanctuary each represent an aspect of folk art that will be incorporated in the museum’s exhibitions, collection and programming. Unlike similar institutions, Flatwater is operating with the broadest possible view of its subject matter.
“It’s going to be more diverse,” Neubert said. “About 50 percent will be traditional — quilts, samplers, windmill weights, weather vanes. The other 50 percent will be outsider art, commercial art and other things, like paint by numbers. …
“For me, there’s a kind of mission to inform the larger audience of the breadth of artistic expression.”
That breadth and, in some areas, great depth is immediately evident in the museum’s storage area.
One wall reveals dozens of samplers, many donated by Karen Duncan, some which date to the early 19th century. One makes reference to Lafayette.
Other pieces on cloth are far different — such as prison hankies from Texas made by inmates, one “In honor of Emilio Zapata” — and there are a stacks of quilts and Indian blankets.
There’s a wall covered with circus clown posters, a shelf filled with dozens of genuinely scary paint-by-numbers clowns and other clown-related artifacts scattered about — which Neubert promises he will combine and turn into an exhibition.
“In some areas, I’ve kind of gone into depth because of my obsession,” Neubert said, referring to the clown collection, then admitting, “This is going to be both high taste and low taste. Both fit into folk art.”
The collection includes work by the most famous outsider artist, Howard Finster; a small sculpture of a Joe Lewis boxing match; a naive painting of Billie Holiday; Elvis on velvet; hunting and fishing decoys; ice fishing lures; carved ships, including a Civil War battleship; Native pottery; some erotic art; and religious artifacts, including six copies of daVinci’s “The Last Supper” and a number of Southwest santos.
The latter is a reflection of the collection’s nationwide coverage.
“Because I’ve lived in New York, California and Texas, a lot of donations have come in from all across the country and have been very impressive,” said Neubert, who also has purchased folk art from around the country, including in Missouri, New Orleans, Alabama and Philadelphia.
The collision between folk or “low” art and “high” art is visible throughout the collection.
For example, there’s a whiskey jug from the South that’s emblazoned with a picture of Johnny Cash — something that very easily could have been created by an M.F.A. student aiming at some kind of irony.
“There's no question folk art has had an influence on academic art,” Neubert said. “I just went into a gallery and was looking at a ceramic piece. I asked about it and was told the artist got his M.F.A. a couple of years ago. It wasn’t folk art, but it looked like it.”
On the opposite side of the folk/high art collision is an old wood altar from the Southwest. It that looks like a Matisse painting, which the artist could not have seen.
A 1940s silk-screened Coca-Cola advertisement in a silver frame looks like pop art, and Neubert has cleverly converted another commercial piece into work that explores the same issues as did Andy Warhol, the converted piece’s initial appropriator.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, after Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup can paintings had become pop art icons, Campbell’s copied Warhol’s images of its products onto canvas shopping bags. Neubert has taken one of the bags, cut it in half, stretched and framed each side and made what appears to be a pair of Warhols.
“With that, and with other things, we’re kind of thinking about what is culture, what is commerce, what is folk art, what is fine art?” Neubert said. “My real proposition is the question of what is high art and what is folk art?”
That proposition will be explored in rotating exhibitions as well as through the collection.
So how can even a small percentage of the collection be displayed in the relatively small church?
“We’re going to do it kind of Victorian; too much is not enough,” Neubert said. That means hanging lots of art on the walls rather than leaving space between works as in most museums. The floating walls will add display space. Some pieces will be hung from the ceiling, and others will sit atop the restroom and kitchen areas.
All that still is to come. Neubert still is working with contractors on the museum interior, adding to the collection and raising funds from private donors and foundations — “I did an estimated budget,” he said. “I’m more than double that.”
The window replacement alone will cost $12,000, and purchasing folk art is becoming more difficult and expensive.
“I couldn’t afford to go out and buy this stuff in today’s market,” Neubert said. “Folk art in today’s market is expensive. Philadelphia’s art museum has made folk art a serious part of the collection. A lot of museums are adding folk art to their collections. So are private collectors. So the demand is high and the supply is shrinking.”
Outside the construction itself, Neubert is doing most of the Flatwater work — “I had a staff of 80 when I retired,” he said. “Now I’m down to one and a reluctant volunteer, my wife.”
A few minutes later, Eva Neubert walked down the stairs into the storage area and concurred with her husband’s assessment — “I’m the administrator, the photographer, the clerk and the researcher,” she said. “And I’m the person who goes on strike.”
The piece of machinery outside the museum actually is art of “highest” variety. It’s a sculpture by Mark di Suvero, the internationally acclaimed creator of works such as “Old Glory” that sits in the center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln downtown campus.
A longtime friend and colleague of Neubert's, who also is a sculptor, di Suvero called a few years back to make an offer.
“He said, ‘I think it looks like a piece of folk art, maybe you could use something like that,’” Neubert said. “I saw the pictures and thought, ‘If I’ve ever seen a whirligig, that’s a whirligig.’ He basically gave it to me.”
There is, however, one major difference between the kinetic Brownville piece made, in part, from the remains of a machine used in a turn-of-the-20th century lumber mill and most di Suvero sculptures — the color.
The sculptures of di Suvero are usually bright red. The Brownville piece is painted orange to resemble Allis Chalmers machinery. It is the first sculpture in a series that Neubert plans to place in Brownville, all of which will have farm equipment colors — John Deere green, Farmall red, Ford blue, etc.
For now, the di Suvero, the cast concrete Eagle Gas Co. eagle from the 1930s that came from an Iowa flea market that sits on the steps and the church are all that can be seen by those who venture to Brownville.
That should change next year when Neubert plans to open the Flatwater Folk Art Museum.
“I’m hoping for the fall of '14,” Neubert said. “I’ve got to raise some more money. But we’ve got things pretty well worked out. We’ll get it done, I think. It’s going to be quite an addition to the cultural offerings of southeast Nebraska. We need to get it open for people.”