GLOUCESTER — Folly Cove, a bell-shaped inlet just a few steps from the Rockport town line, is ringed with boulders and a face of sheer granite on its western shore. It came by its name honestly, after a skipper mistook its contours for a wider harbor and ended up wrecked on its rocks.
Once known as Gallop’s Folly, after that ill-fated skipper, his name has long since been detached from his big mistake. Whatever dubious fame he acquired from it has been supplanted, too. Folly Cove these days might best be known for a group of women designers who once worked out of a barn with views of its dark waters, and with an aesthetic vision entirely their own.
This fall, the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester opened a tribute exhibition to the group called “Designed and Hand-Blocked by the Folly Cove Designers.” The collective always occupies a small corner of the museum, with a selection of their bright-patterned textiles on permanent display. The new exhibition offers a wider celebration of their whimsical, aesthetically rigorous work.
Over nearly 30 years, starting in 1941, the collective built a national following for their hand-printed fabrics, which ranged from napkins and tablecloths to skirts, T-shirts, drapes, and tapestry wall hangings; they became so popular that the department store chain Lord & Taylor would take out full-page ads in The New York Times to promote their wares.
One corner of the show is occupied by a group of mannequins bunched together as though for a family portrait, all decked out in Folly Cove finery: women in long skirts with cinched waists block-printed with flora, fauna, tall ships; men in a waistcoat and a pair of shorts with repeating, nature-derived motifs. Having been there and done that, I would have happily bought the T-shirt, had it been available. A mannequin wears one with an elaborate rosette design featuring undulating natural forms in a deep, dusky blue.
If it isn’t already in the works, I can see how a revival of the group’s aesthetic loveliness on large scale would be a gold mine. The museum tells me that the rights to each of the designs are owned by the respective families, so any such revival is up to them. But the group never had industrial-scale ambitions. Instead, group founder Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios was driven by preserving the handmade as the garment industry was moving rapidly toward industrial mass production.
Demetrios (also known as Virginia Lee Burton), a Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books, didn’t see the group as a hobbyist endeavor; for her, design and printing was a discipline akin to any other form of art. She wrote a book for aspiring printers on that very subject, “Design — and How!” detailing the process each of her students would undergo. It was never published, but her rigorous teachings, built on the foundation of form, proportion, and color — and the relationship between them — resonated throughout the work of the entire group. When she died in 1968, the group lasted just one more year, shutting down the barn after filling a record number of orders. They donated a wealth of their materials to the museum, many of them on display now.
There are magical things here. The array of printed swatches of fabric might be the least beguiling element of a rich process — which is saying a lot, because they’re captivating. The group’s instrument of choice was the linocut block, each of them carved meticulously by hand. The blocks themselves are high-order sculptural objects, mesmerizing in fine detail, with clear-cut mastery of a fussy, unforgiving medium.
I felt as though I might fall into Aino Y. Clarke’s “Geometric III,” undated, as many pieces are, a wildly intricate and ordered field of forms that gave aesthetic hints of ancient glyphs and high-modern art deco stylings at the same time. In a roundabout way, Clarke touched off the establishment of the group when she offered to trade violin lessons for Demetrios’s sons — she played in the Cape Ann Symphony — for design instruction.
For me, she’s the star of the show; her innate sense of order left me agog more than once. The gentle, perfectly proportioned patterns of “Delicate,” another masterwork of style and craft, felt made by the rhythms of nature itself.
The designers diverge stylistically from what often feel in spirit like the strict proportions of geometric abstraction, like Ruth Hendy’s “Hearts,” 1956, to the expressively fecund. Mary Maletskos’s “Peony,” 1964, blooms in a thick and lazy droop; Demetrios’s wildly overgrown, somehow perfectly ordered “Winter Boarders,” is alive with creeping vines and fronds bursting in loose patterns. For all their differences, there was a sameness in their mission and purpose: to prove the value of the human eye and hand in the making of things in a mechanized world.
Most importantly, I think, “Designed and Hand-Blocked by the Folly Cove Designers” helps blow apart a prevailing myth of 20th-century art and aesthetics with the all-important gesture of showing, not telling. Despite ongoing work to the contrary, stale notions of “women’s work” — pottery and quilting, textiles and ceramics — as being a lower, more domestic form of creative expression still linger. The rigor with which these works were conceived and executed leaves nothing to doubt. In a barn by the sea for almost three decades, high-order art was being made by American masters. To look and see anything else is to not see at all.
DESIGNED AND HAND-BLOCKED BY THE FOLLY COVE DESIGNERS
Through March 19. Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester. 978-283-0455, www.capeannmuseum.org