Jim Popso and His Coal Country Folk Art

Part 2 of 2 by Woodward S. Bousquet

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The following article, accompanied by 14 photographs, originally appeared in the Spring, 1995 issue of Pennsylvania Folklife. Additional copies of this issue, which was devoted to folk art, may be available from The Historical Society of Trappe, Collegeville and Perkiomen Valley, Inc. http://www.trappehistoricalsociety.org/folklife.html

Our thanks go to both the Author and the Pennsylvania Folklife Society.

Photos of Jim Popso and some of his work:

Representing a life-sized scene in an 18" x 24" painting or tabletop-scale model not only requires the appropriate materials, it also demands a knowledge of the subject. Popso often refreshes his memory by driving out to the location so that he can note its fine points in his sketch pad. Besides roughing out a building's roof lines, pipes, and other distinguishing features, he records such details as paint colors and the shape and arrangement of panes in each window frame. To make his replica of the Coxeville breaker, however, Jim couldn't draw a sketch because the structure had burned down several years before. Instead, he enlisted the help of a friend who knew the breaker. While Popso constructed the model in his shop, the friend sat beside him and told him how the breaker looked. To Jim, faithfulness to the original is an important dimension of quality.

As he described another of his breakers, Jim pointed out the railings that he fashioned from narrow-gauge wire and held up with nail supports. "You gotta use your noggin," he remarked, "when you detail something like this. . . . You gotta use whatever you got." Turning to the maze of pipes that lace the breaker and its outbuildings together, he continued, "all those little pipes you see going around -- they're steam pipes, real skinny ones -- they're [made out of] coat hangers. You chop them up and you bend them the way you want them. . . . The ones that are painted white have a coating on. If you go over to the breaker, you'll see a coating on that steam pipe. That's to keep it from freezing."

In spite of his considerable experience with tools, Jim readily concedes the difficulties of whittling out small details by hand. He described this problem with one of his most appealing pieces, Monday Wash Day, which shows his mother hanging the family's weekly load of laundry to dry outside their "Summer Shandy" [sic]. "The hard part there, you know, is carving the lady out. Everything else is easier to do. But to carve that, get your Rosie Lee [pocket knife] out. Takes time to carve her out. I bust the blades as fast as I cut." The undependable quality of the scrap wood Jim finds presented added challenges:

"See what I was scalping it out of? That was a two-by-four. I'd been playing with it all night and finally, look, that's how it ended up. . . . And I started from scratch. I didn't use a saw, I cut with a pocket knife and I broke the pocket knife and everything." "I use all kinds of softwood. It's easier to cut, you know. Oh, sometimes I cut one out of hardwood, too, but you have sore hands when you get done."

To make his work easier, Popso takes a few shortcuts. He carves out many of his human figures piecemeal, gluing legs and arms onto the torso after deciding how to pose the person. Instead of incising lines to represent hair, Popso cuts cotton twine or material from a fuzzy jacket to size, glues it onto the figure's head, and then daubs on paint to provide the appropriate color and stiffness. Recently, Jim has begun roofing his buildings with shingles. Rather than cutting separate shingles out of thin sheets of wood, he uses lightweight cardboard from a campaign sign. He fashions an entire row of shingles at once by making a series of short cuts, each at an angle, in a strip of cardboard. Painted and then sprayed with clear lacquer, the cut strip looks like a series of shingles.

Sometimes Jim even improvises his tools. As he showed the wooden wheels on a small box car model, he explained, "Now them wheels there, they were hard to make. What I did was I cut a square, drilled a hole in it, put [it on] an electric drill, and held a file against it until the wheel was round. Great stone-age job. I had [the right] tool that would cut this wheel out, put a ridge on it . . . . Well, I loaned it to somebody who never brought it back."

After enumerating the cost of paint, nails, glue, and other materials that it took to make a particularly large piece, Jim remarked, "When you got it done, you figure out how much money you got stuck in it. You got a hundred and fifty dollars stuck in that thing, plus your labor. If you mark it all down on a piece of paper, you say to yourself, 'You're nuts.'" But he quickly added, "It's beautiful. That's a magnificent piece of work." Clearly, the finished product gives Jim a sense of pride, accomplishment and satisfaction. "I saw junk that other guys were putting together. They don't know how to build breakers like I build 'em. You don't know what it is -- if it's a macaroni factory or sausage factory." Turning to his two-foot-square model of a breaker operated by the Reading Coal Company, Jim remarks, "I build 'em to look like a breaker. This is a masterpiece."

In many ways, the significance of Popso's pieces to their maker parallels that of the contemporary boat models that Charles Zug found on the North Carolina coast. The boat builders, who had once constructed full-sized wooden vessels and fished from them, turned to making miniature replicas for an alternate way to earn a living or as a retirement pastime. The North Carolinians' model boats and Popso's models of coal processing equipment publicly demonstrate their makers' craftsmanship and firsthand experience with a distinctive way of life. Vocation has thus provided each of these artists with his subject matter. As Zug puts it, the miniatures "serve as distillations of experience."10

The similarities also extend to the intuitive understanding of scale, derived from long experience, that guides these artists as they make their models.11 Like the boat builders Zug interviewed, who construct their ships "by the rack of the eye" without plans or measurements, Jim Popso observes, "Everything I build, I build without print. I don't need no print. Once I look at a place, I remember everything that's there." And he adds, "You don't measure nothin'. All you do is pound it out."

Before the Eckley Miners' Village Museum Shop began carrying his work, Jim Popso relied on informal means to market his models and paintings. He would keep a few pieces in his pickup truck and show them while he ran his errands in town. Interested people sometimes made purchases or suggested others who might want to see his work. "People used to send me places. I was goin' all over. . . . I was gonna advertise," Popso remembers, but he decided that neither advertising nor driving were worth the effort. "Let the people advertise for me, [and] let them come and get it." A local artist introduced Popso and his work to the Eckley staff in 1989. Soon afterwards, the village's newly opened museum shop began offering some of Jim's miniatures and paintings.

The Eckley sales gained Popso a measure of recognition and brought visitors to his home. His pieces have traveled to destinations as far away as Colorado and Washington state. As a result, Jim's approach to marketing has changed over the past five years. Although Eckley Miners Village still sells his work on consignment, more now goes out his front door in the arms of the collectors and dealers who seek him out. Jim corresponds with several buyers and makes some pieces to order. He regularly sets up a booth during Eckley's "Patch Town Days," an annual celebration of ethnic traditions of anthracite mining towns. In addition, his friends Monica Teprovich and her late husband Stanley have displayed and sold Popso items at their butcher shop in the Schuylkill County village of Quakake.

Besides increasing the demand for the products of his labor, market forces have affected Jim's work in other ways. Shortly after Eckley's museum shop accepted his paintings and models, Jim expanded his repertoire to include simple necklaces, key chains, painted pieces of coal, mine carts, and other items with "Eckley" painted on them. In addition, his craftsmanship has recently become more refined. The lettering is neater. His carved human figures are shaped and finished more carefully. Even the small souvenir-type items show greater attention to detailed painting and smooth sanding.

Jim has also noticed the appeal of his humorous work and, consequently, developed some new whimsical pieces. These include a "foot of coal" (a human foot carved out of wood with small lumps of coal attached), PG-rated models and cartoons of outhouses, and a used motor vehicle equipment shop operated by a character named Lonesome John.12 Probably his most imaginative work to date is the Junk Yard Dog Gun. Sporting a sighting scope, ersatz grenades, expended ammunition shells, and a variety of door hardware, the full-sized rifle model bears the legend, "This Gun Used in the Battle with the Junk Yard Dog." Jim has sold several other mixed-media "guns" since putting this first one together in 1992. He speculates about making a series of them sometime.

Popso's work is a composite of family tradition, community heritage, and individual creativity. However, his miniatures and paintings do not constitute part of a distinct regional pattern as do, for example, Amish quilts and southeastern Pennsylvania's decorative wood carvings. No one in Jim's family or community specifically taught him to paint scenes of mining towns or construct models of coal processing machinery. To many folklorists, such characteristics are essential to folk art.13 Should James Popso then be called a "folk" artist?

Although his body of work may not meet the restrictive criteria above, I would argue that Jim is a folk artist nonetheless. The subjects he portrays, the techniques by which he creates his pieces, the context in which they are produced, and the resulting products all reflect aspects of culture that may properly be labeled folk. Jim depicts vignettes from his life, times, and community. Woodworking, painting, and other skills that he employs have been passed from one Popso generation to the next. In selecting materials, he generally uses what is readily available locally for the least cost. Paintings and wooden miniatures are common folk forms of visual expression. The term "folk artist," then, should be broad enough to encompass Jim Popso, given his work's direct connections to a region's heritage and a culture's traditions.14

Today Jim views anthracite mining's legacy in eastern Pennsylvania and its impact on his life with ambivalence, a combination of pride and regret:

My father's chest turned to stone from breathin' all that dust. They were gonna operate on him, but the doctor said you'd need a jackhammer.

Now we were makin' coal crushers when I was working for Foster Wheeler. . . . They used to take two weeks, three weeks, four weeks to build this one crusher. Me and my buddy built one in eight hours. Did we weld! Whoa, we were workin' like mad. "C'mon," we told the boss. "You watch us smoke."

They ruined everything with these strippin's. There was a beautiful town over here.

J. Popso, Son of a Coal Miner [signature on one of his coal crusher models]

While the Hazleton area's economy refocused and diversified during the past several decades, Jim's life also underwent substantial changes. Having been, at various times, an auto mechanic, truck driver, welder, and peace officer, his present-day identity appears on his paintings and miniatures: J. Popso, Folk Artist. Not one to spend time ruminating aloud about the significance of his occupation and the attention he has begun to receive, he once commented, only half in jest, "People around here are saying, 'How the hell does he rate?' They still think I'm a gypsy. . . . Well I'm rare, one of a kind." His friend Monica Teprovich may have summed up Jim Popso and his work the best. "I don't think Jim realizes the importance of what he does," she remarked. "He's preserving our history here."

WOODWARD S. BOUSQUET is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. His interest in folk art and folklife stems from his interdisciplinary studies of the relationships between people and the environment, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. From his childhood roots in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, he went to Cornell University to earn his B.S. in Environmental Education and Science Education (Biology). His master's is in Natural Resources from Ohio State, where he also earned a Ph.D. in Science Education.

1 Chuck Rosenak and Jan Rosenak, Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Artists (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), pp. 270-272.

2 James Popso, interviewed by the author, 31 January 1993. All subsequent quotations are taken from conversations with the author on 23 December 1991, 19 March 1992, 24 April 1992, 27 December 1992, 31 January 1993, 18 March 1993, 20 October 1993, 6 November 1993, 1 January 1994, 9 April 1994, and 28 May 1994. The interviews on 19 March 1992 and 31 January 1993 were taped and transcribed.

3 Simon J. Bronner, Chain Carvers. Old Men Crafting Meaning (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1985), pp. 128-129.

4 N. F. Karlins, "Floretta Emma Warfel. A Folk Artist in Embroidery Paint on Cloth," Pennsylvania Folklife 39.1 (Autumn 1989), p. 27; Rosenaks, Encyclopedia, p. 200.

5 Rosenaks, Encyclopedia, p. 250; N.F. Karlins, "Lamont Alfred 'Old Ironsides' Pry, Contemporary American Folk Artist," Pennsylvania Folklife 37.3 (Spring 1988), p. 132.

6 Karlins, "Floretta Emma Warfel," p. 29.

7 Karlins, "Floretta Emma Warfel," p. 27.

8 Tom Patterson, Ashe: Improvisation & Recycling in African-American Visionary Art (Winston-Salem, NC: Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, 1993), p. 17.

9 Patterson, Ashe, p. 18. Patterson quotes Julius S. Kassovic, "Junk and Its Transformations," A Report from the Center for Folk Art and Contemporary Crafts 3.1 (1992), p. 1.

10 Charles G. Zug, III, "Little Boats: Making Ship Models on the North Carolina Coast," North Carolina Folklore Journal 39.1 (Winter-Spring 1992), p. 25.

11 Zug terms this understanding "an innate sense of proportion" and discusses its origins in "Little Boats," pp. 16-17.

12 Purists might prefer that modern folk art and its makers remain "untainted" by the marketplace's influence. However, Jim Popso is far from unique among contemporary folk artists in incorporating into his products the real or presumed demands of buyers. See, for instance, Charles G. Zug, III, "New Pots for Old. Burlon Craig's Strategy for Success," Folklife Annual 88-89, ed. by James Hardin and Alan Jabbour (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989), pp. 126-137; Jane Beck, "Stories to Tell: The Narrative Impulse in Contemporary New England Folk Art," exhibit catalog by the same name, ed. by Janet G. Silver (Lincoln, MA: DeCordova and Dana Museum and Park, 1988), p. 48; Frederick J. Dockstader, The Kachina and the White Man. The Influences of White Culture on the Hopi Kachina Religion, rev. ed., (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), pp. 104-106, 152-158; and Michael Owen Jones, Craftsman of the Cumberlands. Tradition & Creativity (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989), pp. 131-154.

13 For discussion along these lines, see John Michael Vlach, "'Properly Speaking': The Need for Plain Talk about Folk Art," Folk Art and Art Worlds, ed. by John Michael Vlach and Simon J. Bronner (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1986), pp. 13-26; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Introduction," The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy, ed. by Mary Hufford, Marjorie Hunt, and Steven Zeitlin (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), p. 15; and Charles G. Zug, III, "Folk Art and Outsider Art: A Folklorist's Perspective," The Artist Outsider. Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture, ed. by Michael D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), pp. 144-160.

14 Support for this position can be found in, for example, Karlins, "Floretta Emma Warfel," pp. 27-28; Kenneth L. Ames, "Folk Art: The Challenge and the Promise," Perspectives on American Folk Art, ed. by Ian M. G. Quimby and Scott T. Swank (Winterthur, DE: The Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, 1980), esp. pp. 308-322; Michael Owen Jones, "L.A. Add-ons and Re-dos: Renovation in Folk Art and Architectural Design," Perspectives on American Folk Art, ed. by Ian M. G. Quimby and Scott T. Swank (Winterthur, DE: The Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, 1980), esp. pp.351-356; Woodward S. Bousquet, "Work, Family, and Faith. Marshall Fleming's Folk Art," Appalachian Journal 19.3 (Spring 1992), esp. pp. 304-306; and Susan F. Isaacs, review of Charles G. Zug, III, Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), Journal of American Folklore 101 (1988), pp. 91-93.

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