The Chronicle first heard about Doug Kelley’s collection of Obama folk art when we met him at a health care forum last month, so when we learned that he’d be exhibiting part of it at the annual Ann Arbor Democratic Party‘s Labor Day picnic, we headed to the Elks Pratt Lodge on Monday to check it out.
The collection – two pairs of dolls, a quilted hanging, a hook rug, a walking stick, and several other items – includes original, somewhat eccentric work by artists from Ann Arbor and across the country.
Kelley gives frequent exhibits from his extensive Democratic Party archive – on Oct. 3, he’ll be displaying a collection of items related to voting rights at the annual meeting of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. That meeting will feature civil rights activist John Lewis as guest speaker. But the Labor Day display was unique in at least one way: “It’s the first exhibit I’ve ever done that offers free peanuts,” Kelley said, pointing to a plastic dish filled with nuts for the taking.
So as rank-and-file Dems noshed and mingled with elected officials on the wraparound porch of the Elks lodge, we chatted with Kelley about some of the more unusual pieces he’s acquired.
Obama Dolls: Kathy Snyder
Local dollmaker Kathy Snyder had never before attempted a political subject, Kelley said, but she made two sets of Barack and Michelle Obama dolls for Kelley – and has now sold more than $1,000 worth of the dolls through the local Democratic Party.
One set of dolls stands 21 inches high – the Michelle Obama doll in this set wears a hand-painted red-and-black dress modeled after the one she wore at the election night celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park. All of the clothing is meticulously crafted, Kelley says: “They even have underwear!” Snyder’s 17-inch Obama dolls sell for $50 each or $95 for the pair. The 21-inch Obamas cost $195 for the set.
Wall Hanging: Susan Walen
Earlier this year Kelley got a call from his son Peter, who was in the Washington, D.C. area at a quilt show. “He said, ‘You’re never going to believe it – all the quilts are about Obama!’” Kelley recalled. The show had been organized by Bethesda, Md. artist Susan Walen, and Kelley ended up acquiring two of her quilted wall hangings. The one on display at the Labor Day picnic shows the Obama family at the White House. For the record, Kelley notes that the dog pictured in the quilt is a different breed from Bo, the Obama’s Portuguese water dog. Walen made the quilt after they’d announced plans to get a puppy, but before they actually chose one.
Kelley also brought a copy of a book put together by Walen: “President Obama – A Celebration in Art Quilts.” In it, there’s a picture of the other quilted wall hanging he owns, which was too large to bring to the Labor Day picnic. Titled “Dear Mr. Obama …” it includes an image of Obama and a nine-page letter that Walen wrote to him – she discusses the piece in an interview published on the Alliance for American Quilts website.
Obama/Clinton Portraits: Steve Shepard
Steve Shepard is an artist from Gautier, Miss. who won best of show several years ago at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair – that’s where Kelley first learned of his work. Shepard suffered financial losses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that have prevented him from traveling back to Ann Arbor, but Kelley has kept in touch and purchased several pieces, including portraits of Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Kelley made a point of noting that the artist had not been advocating an Obama/Clinton ticket – it was Kelley’s decision to frame the two portraits together.
In addition to the work on display at the Labor Day picnic, Kelley also owns another piece of Shepard’s artwork: A portrait of Obama painted on a seven-foot-long slice of cypress wood.
Walking Stick: Victoria Fox Robertello
Artist Victoria Fox Robertello lives in Britton, Mich., and is a regular at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where she’s best known for making elaborate fish out of driftwood and other found timber.
But during the 2008 presidential campaign, she made several items that are now in Kelley’s collection. For Monday’s display he brought three of them: Two wooden signs that Kelley and Patrick Boeheim, a Washtenaw Democratic Party officer, carried in the 2008 and 2009 Ann Arbor July Fourth parades; and an elaborately painted Uncle Sam walking stick, made from a crooked piece of wood that forks into two “legs.”