Very little is known about the folk artist Asa Ames who died of consumption in 1851 when he was 27 years old. We know that he worked in Evans, Erie County, New York-just south of Buffalo. In the federal census of 1850, his occupation is listed as “sculpturing.” He left behind 12 or 13 pieces of authenticated work, unusual for its time in its realistic life-size portraits carved in wood and painted.
One of his most provocative and abstract is of the young girl with phrenological markings on her head. His bust of a young man seems nearly ready to speak. His portrait of Susan Ames displays the bored look of a young child being forced to pose for her portrait for a very long time. The head of a boy, some have suggested, may even be a self-portrait. The hand holding book is conceptual, nearly modern. Attention to detail– intricacies of hair, clothing, even ears –makes these sculptures come alive.
The recently discovered daguerrotype (see last photo) is of Ames working on a bust. The profile of this bust suggests it may be of Ames himself (see the tilt of the nose). He is well-dressed. Three of his sculptures look on from the right, like spectators or fans, watching him work. Behind them the hand holding book (pictured at top) and a bass viol perch. Mysteriously, underneath the table holding the busts is a man (also observing the sculptor), perhaps to represent another bust (and how life-like this artist can make them) or a future portrait project or some inside joke. Some have conjectured that Ames was already sick when this daguerrotype was taken. The picture is an intentional pastiche, a stage-set, perhaps an attempt by Ames to create a legacy, a message to the future, knowing that he may not have had long to live.
But the legacy rests in the work itself–detailed, well-observed, and well-crafted. A small reflection of a unique “sculpturing” talent in the period of generalized itinerant portraits that existed in the United States at the time.