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Glance At The Past

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A piece of folk art with roots in Ogdensburg has a home at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., and a Canton folklorist is trying to unravel the story of how it came to be.

The Galvanized Man, part of the museum’s Herbert Wade Hemphill Jr. Collection, is a sheet-metal sculpture measuring 78 inches high and 36 inches wide. According to folklorist Varick A. Chittenden, he was most likely created by Gerald McCarthy, a sheet metal worker or “tin knocker” who had a shop in the 300 block of Mansion Avenue.

Pieces like the Galvanized Man used to be a common sight in the north country, Mr. Chittenden said.

“It was kind of a form of advertising that sheet metal workers would make,” he said. “He might have been the only one in Ogdensburg, but a lot of them probably would have been destroyed over the years because they wouldn’t have been considered great works of art by a lot of people.”

The Smithsonian acquired the Galvanized Man as part of Mr. Hemphill’s folk art collection when he died in 1998. The New York City resident was a celebrated folk art collector and curator whose pieces were shown in 24 museums across the country between 1974 and 1988. Mr. Chittenden helped Mr. Hemphill trace the Galvanized Man’s history in the 1990s.

He said Mr. Hemphill acquired the Galvanized Man in the 1970s from an antique dealer in the capital district.

Mr. Chittenden said that he was able to learn through talking with city residents that the statue stood outside Mr. McCarthy’s shop, which was on property currently occupied by the Richard E. Winter Cancer Treatment Center. In the mid 1900s, Mr. McCarthy was a sheet metal worker who specialized in duct work, gutters and downspouts. The sculpture carries a faded “Plumbing, Heating, Cooling” slogan painted across its chest.

Mr. Chittenden said the sculpture must have attracted the curiosity of neighborhood children, and is looking for anyone who might remember it to tell him what they know about it.

It might not have seemed like much to those who saw it in its day, but it is representative of an important folk art, Mr. Chittenden said.

“From the point of view of folk art, there is an expressiveness with this particular type of work. Some were very interesting and very funny,” he said.

He said he only knows of a handful of such pieces which remain in the north country — one in Lowville, one in a heating and plumbing supply shop in Watertown, one in a private collection in Canton and another that surfaced recently in the Norfolk area.

“They are rather common, but they weren’t all alike,” he said. “What they were doing often in addition to being a form of advertising was, especially for the more elaborate ones, to demonstrate the kind of workmanship a tin knocker could do — that quality of soldering, the types of parts and the like.”

The Galvanized Man has been included in several museum exhibits of American folk art and is featured in a scholarly discussion of such sculpture by Archie Green, published in 2002.

Mr. Chittenden is seeking information about Mr. McCarthy, his shop, its exact location, any information regarding the sculpture, and the whereabouts of any of Mr. McCarthy’s surviving descendants.

He said he is especially interested in any photographs people might have taken of the Galvanized Man outside Mr. McCarthy’s shop.

“Ithink it’s exciting that it’s held in such high regard by one of our great museums, so I want to find out as much as I can to set the record straight,” he said.“I’ll appreciate anything anyone can suggest.”

Anyone with any information about the sculpture, Mr. McCarthy’s shop or family is encouraged to contact Mr. Chittenden at 386-2398 or varick@tauny.org.

If you have a photo or feature for Glance At The Past, please contact Advance-News Editor Elizabeth Lyons at 393-1003, extension 102, or egraham@wdt.net. Photos and accompanying information will be published in the order in which they are received, and must be received by Monday to be considered for publication the following Sunday. Contributors may pick up their submissions at The Journal and Advance-News office, 230 Caroline St., Ogdensburg, after they are published.

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