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Art Imitating Life -- Frontier Life

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If ever there were two craftsmen who deserve a local following, it's American frontier artists Ken Scott and Ron Vail. Both are award-winning artists whose dedication to authenticity and education are admirable, and both are well known and respected in the traditional artisan community that extends far beyond Indianapolis. Scott has made a name for himself by crafting leather pouches and bags and creating colonial folk art paintings (also known as frakturs). Vail makes a variety of powder horns, best known for holding gunpowder. They've been recognized numerous times by Early American Life for their work and asked to teach and speak locally, but haven't yet attained local fame for their efforts.

Scott and Vail have known each other since 1973 and have shared an interest in history and re-creating it for at least that long. They've participated in re-enactments that found them dressing in colonial clothes so they could "go play in the woods," Vail says. The weekend or weeklong adventures would find the enthusiasts playing the part of longhunters who would venture into nature to forage for food or settle land. "Everything you had with you had to have been available in the Rockies between 1825 and 1840," Vail explains, noting that participants might take coffee or tea, but otherwise lived off the land -- even needing to start a campfire with flint and steel.

A butterfly fraktur by Ken Scott and a scrimshaw covered powderhorn by Ron Vail.  - KEN SCOTT & RON VAIL
  • Ken Scott & Ron Vail
  • A butterfly fraktur by Ken Scott and a scrimshaw covered powderhorn by Ron Vail.

The items that Scott and Vail create were used during colonial times for protection or to provide for the family. "Our art developed out of that [naturalist experience]," Scott says, adding, "We would have to make things that weren't readily available on the market."

The artists' interest in early American colonial art has found them learning as much as possible about their respective crafts, closely examining work by 18th-century naturalists and limners. Their objective is to mimic the look of work done by everymen who created utilitarian pieces to make their lives easier. Vail uses egg tempera to paint his powder horns, combining the mixture with dry watercolor powder to give them an old-timey look. The artists have also used milk paint, which was in wide use until the 1800s. Scott describes milk as an extender or binder designed to make the paint last longer. "We've developed our art to look authentic," he adds.

Vail lends his attention for detail to cow horns he finishes with wood files, knives, and nails. He's made hundreds of powder horns and is working to think of them as works of art instead of just functional objects. It's not hard as a viewer to see the horns as masterpieces, especially since they start out as slaughterhouse castoffs that are rough, dull and raw.

Vail's process includes drilling a hole in the small end of the horn for the release of gunpowder, fitting the larger end with a wood stopper, scraping the horn with a knife until it's smooth, and antiquing the material for the proper aged look. He also adds artistic notches, fake repairs, scrimshaw, and a leather strap if the user intends to carry the horn over his or her shoulder. His skill is a blessing and something of a curse; although he's received awards for his work, he's also found his horns being sold on eBay under the guise of being authentic, centuries-old pieces.

Scott has experienced the same issue, having to speak at least once with an antique dealer who didn't realize the fraktur painting he was selling was only a few weeks old. To dissuade deception, each artist incorporates design elements that let the buyer know they're purchasing a contemporary piece made to look historical.

Ken and Ron at the Colonial Art Fair.  - COURTESY KEN SCOTT & RON VAIL
  • Courtesy Ken Scott & Ron Vail
  • Ken and Ron at the Colonial Art Fair.

Scott's artistic process includes antiquing upcycled book covers for his art, using them to create naturalist paintings, birth records, and marriage records. He incorporates real elements into his work, such as the story of a captured pirate, and adds fictional elements, like the pirate's encounter with a mermaid off the coast of Barbados. He enjoys employing elements like birds, flowers and butterflies, which he sketches and fills in with watercolors.

Scott uses a series of chemicals and dyes to get the aged look he wants, using the same technique on his leatherwork. Both Vail and Scott have had their art featured onContemporary Makers, and they sell pieces through a website and blog, respectively.

Both will have their work on display for a pop-up art show -- one night only -- on Friday, Aug. 1, at the Harold Lee Miller Studio (646 Virginia Ave.). The show, called Black Powder & Paint, will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Scott will also have his work on exhibit at the Indianapolis Zoo (1200 W. Washington St.) for its Naturally Inspired Paint Out Day. The art show runs through Aug. 27 and Scott is one of 15 juried artists chosen to participate.

Scott and Vail love best the chance to educate the public about the work they create. Meet them in person during their First Friday show or at the Contemporary Longrifle Association annual show in Lexington, Kentucky, beginning Aug. 15.

Interested persons can study with the pair at Conner Prairie (13400 Allisonville Road) during its annual Traditional Arts & Arms Making Workshop in October. The weeklong event gives participants the chance to learn about engraving, blacksmithing, knife- and axe-making, creating leather bags, and fraktur design. As Scott says of the classes he teaches, "We're going to make something AND have fun." He adds, "It's a niche market, no doubt about that. Ron and I enjoy what we do."

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