Whittlin' History Exhibit
Jehu F. Camper (1897-1989) was born and raised on a farm in Harrington, Delaware. Camper’s father gave him a two-bladed Barlow penknife when he was eight years old. At that time, a farm hand taught Camper to whittle windmills. “I went into mass production of windmills,” said Camper. “I had one on the clothesline, one on the hen house, one on the outdoor toilet. My mother said if the old cow stood still long enough, she was sure I’d put one on her.”
This exhibit features forty-four scenes of farm and village life and work at the turn of the century in Delaware. The scenes are a blend of reality and fiction; of history and romance. Folklorist Robert Bethke and Kim Burdick describe Camper as “a man with a mission,” who “is at heart an untrained social historian and a teacher. .... “The exhibit also includes Jehu Camper own descriptions of the scenes he whittled. Excerpts have been reproduced from a series of taped interviews conducted during the 1980s by Robert Bethke, Kim Burdick, and former University of Delaware students Valerie Cesna, Karen Lum, Dixie Lowen, and Mark Burgh.
Through both his whittlin’s and words, Jehu Camper has fulfilled a wish he once expressed. “Well, most everybody, if you think about it,” explained Camper, “has some way of expressing themselves. Some do it through singing, some preaching, some acting and athletics and numerous things. And that’s the only way I could express myself and create something in history that would be carried on after I passed out of this world. I often had thought I would like to leave something behind me besides a name on a tombstone to remember the name of Camper, and I feel through this, I may be able to do it.”
The definition of folk art is often debated. Lisa W. Greenberg, a museum curator trained in fine arts, writes that “folk art has been variously described as primitive, naive, amateur, grassroots, outside, isolate, unsophisticated, innocent, anonymous, visionary, traditional, and community based. Often contradictory, these descriptions are associated with widely divergent approaches to folk art-one fundamentally aesthetic, the other cultural.” To Holger Cahill, an early authority on the subject, “folk art. . . is the expression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment. It is not the expression of professional artists made for a small cultured class, and it has little to do with the fashionable art of its period. It does not come out of an academic tradition passed on by schools, but out of craft tradition plus the personal quality of the rare craftsman who is an artist.” According to Delaware folklorist Kim Burdick, Jehu Camper’s “work fulfills the folklorist’s requirement that folk art be the product of a traditional cultural pattern, and the art historian’s requirements of balance, skill and technical excellence. It is good art because it is Jehu’s own art; not derivative or an imitation of what other artists are doing, but fresh and fun; scenes, real or imagined from Delaware’s folk life.”