Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Why a Book about Henry Lapp and Barbara Ebersol?
Many of us are increasingly intrigued by Amish life. How does an entire group of people sustain itself amid the encroachment of "the world"? Do all of its members fit the cookie-cutter sameness which we sometimes attribute to this community? If people do not quite fit the mold, how much can they vary and stay in the Amish church?
As is true in any society and in every culture, there are many people among the Amish with particular gifts of creativity and insight. This is the story of two such people -- born in the mid-19th century -- who have captured the interest of present-day historians, art researchers, and collectors.
Henry Lapp and Barbara Ebersol. Both were born into typical Amish families who happened to live on adjoining farms in the Mill Creek Valley of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Both had a handicap -- Barbara was a dwarf and Henry was hearing impaired. Both were visual artists -- Henry was a furniture maker and a watercolor artist; Barbara was a seamstress and a fraktur artist. Both remained single throughout their lives.
Because their creations were treasured by members of their families, as well as by others in their local community many of the pieces they built, sewed, and painted have endured and are the reason for the interest we take in their lives today. We are as captivated by the beauty of a Henry Lapp painting or a Barbara Ebersol bookplate as we are by the fact that these exquisite pieces came from austere Amish lives. How did their artistry develop? How was it nurtured? Why is it celebrated today? Discovering those answers is the task of this book.
-- Louise Stoltzfus
Chapter 1 -- The Genius and Craftsmanship of Henry Lapp
Who Was Henry Lapp?
Henry Lapp was a well-known Amish furniture maker. He was a watercolor artist. He was the owner of a hardware store and an occasional inventor. He was also a faithful member of the Amish church and lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from 1862 until 1904. A short and stocky man, no more than five and one-half feet tall, Henry Lapp was most often remembered by his family for his kindhearted spirit and his playfulness. In the words of a Lapp relative, "My mother used to say he was humorous, a joking kind of person."
Most people knew him as "Henny," an ingenious artisan who compensated for a serious hearing impairment by communicating with people through his notebooks. Several of these notebooks have survived. One, in the collection of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a full color catalog with watercolor drawings of the items he built. Another, in the collection of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County, is filled with intricate diagrams of many of the items in his catalog. Another is a personal journal with dozens of pencil sketches and short questions related to Henry Lapp's everyday experiences.
For the most part, the people of his community thought of him as a furniture maker and hardware store proprietor. While many of his friends and relative enjoyed his skills as a painter, they probably never imagined he would one day be remembered for his gifts as an artist. Because of his hearing problem, he found conversation difficult. This handicap, along with the fact that he never married, meant Henry often spent his time at family and church gatherings entertaining the children by drawing and painting small sketches which he then freely gave away.
This unique combination of traits -- he was an artist, he was handicapped, he never married, and he was a generous personality -- made him a sort of celebrity in his own time and place. People found him interesting. Many saved his paintings, his furniture, and his stories, eventually passing them on to their children and grandchildren.
The Charisma of Henry Lapp
While he was a kind and humble man who embodied Amish beliefs, Henry Lapp also had an inventive nature and a risk-taking spirit. His paintings provided a way for him to communicate. The furniture he built ensured a steady source of income. And the many contraptions he devised permitted him to push out the edges of his understanding. He relished life, giving his heart and soul to the community which protected and nourished him.
One researcher suggested, "I think his art became his speech." Family members support that suggestion with their memories of the get-togethers where he could be found drawing and experimenting with watercolors while the other adults visited about the weather, the crops, and the latest events in their community life. Henry usually had the children's attention as he finished yet another colorful painting of a chicken, a squirrel, or a mouse.
Indeed, his fondness for children, his careful treatment of animals, and his knowledge of the world surfaced again and again in his work. In addition to the many paintings of animals and plants common to the rural farm life Henry Lapp knew intimately, there are also paintings which show a lion, a giraffe, and an elephant, as well as a collection of cartoon-like characters.
At least one of his nieces enjoyed his work enough to try her own hand at painting. Between ages ten and fourteen, Fannie L. Beiler, one of the many daughters of Henry's sister Fannie, painted a collection of subjects mimicking her Uncle Henry's style. Like Henry she drew animals and vegetables and fruits, often choosing unusual colors such as orange grapes, blue apples, and pigs with green tails for her own work.
If his "art became his speech," Henry Lapp was a captivating man of striking intelligence. His furniture catalog, in particular, demonstrated a certain fearless approach to business. While his mainstay was large, sturdy household furniture, he dabbled in everything from a domino game to a toy wagon to a gaily painted wooden village. He came up with his own versions of stepladders, reading tables, threshing machines, and mouse traps. The playful energy that drove his life never appeared far from the surface and sometimes frustrated Elizabeth (also called Lizzie), the more strait-laced sister with whom he lived.