First published: Spring 2023
Pieced together from historical records and old photos: the story of a Civil War soldier and his 1800s art environment of wooden sculptures
One of the earliest known art environments in the USA was created towards the end of the nineteenth century by Civil War veteran Moses Ogden, in and around his house in Allegany County, New York. Dismantled soon after his death more than 100 years ago, it would have been largely forgotten if not for the fortuitous discoveries and dedicated research of a few art dealers, collectors and historians. Over the last four decades, and with little fanfare, these individuals diligently followed clues provided by photographs, yellowed news clippings and the scores of found-wood sculptures that survive from the environment.
Gargoyle Head, 6 x 9 x 6 in. / 15 x 23 x 15 cm, private collection
The youngest of six offspring born to Samuel and Deborah Ann Ogden, Moses (1844–1919) was skilled at making things by hand, like most Americans of his generation. Among the few known facts about his life is that he was a wagon maker – a trade at which he apprenticed in his youth. In 1862, aged18, he enlisted in the nineteenth New York Cavalry Regiment, better known as the First New York Dragoons.
Figure of a Woman, burl wood and fibre hair, 13 x 26 x 8 in. / 33 x 66 x 20.5 cm, private collection
After several years of brutal service, Ogden mustered out in 1865, married Mary Elizabeth Buckley, with whom he had a daughter, and built a modest family home in the small town of Angelica, New York. Initially employed by a local wagon shop, he later pursued his trade independently, continuing to build wagons until he retired in around 1890. Supporting himself thereafter on a military pension, he began creating sculptures and idiosyncratic furnishings from pieces of found wood that he carved with a jackknife to enhance their naturally evocative shapes, their gnarls, burls and knots.
Grotesque Burl Head, 8 x 9 x 4 in. / 20 x 23 x 10 cm, Dan Olson
Ogden was prolific in his creative endeavours, and his sculptures came to occupy most of the available space inside and around his home, where they drew the attention of friends, neighbours and passers-by. Those who knew him called him “Mose”, and his ever-expanding art environment came to be known as “Mose Ogden’s Wonderland”.
By TOM PATTERSON
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #114.