Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 28, 2008 with the permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


New Discoveries in Georgia Painted Furniture 

by Ashley Callahan and Dale L. Couch


A Colorful Past, the theme of the Fourth Henry D. Green Symposium of the Decorative Arts, offers an excellent opportunity to examine recent discoveries in the painted vernacular furniture that is central to the experience of nineteenth-century Georgians. Moreover, it provides a chance to investigate connections between these surfaces and the painted (and unpainted) built environment of that period. Paint surfaces are among the most fragile elements of material heritage. Extant examples and those that survive behind later coats of paint can provide a tantalizing "Technicolor" glimpse of a past mostly viewed through the faded sepia tones of early photographs or imagined in the presence of overly refinished products aesthetically sanitized for Colonial Revival collectors. The goals of New Discoveries in Georgia Painted Furniture are to celebrate this colorful past and to present an opportunity to reflect on the history of painted surfaces in Georgia.

Georgia was a fluid construction as a state, and its political and cultural borders have not always aligned. Present northwest South Carolina was once part of Georgia, a jurisdiction that was transferred to the neighboring state in the Treaty of Beaufort in 1787. The South Carolina section of the Central Savannah River Area was well within the cultural domain of Augusta and, indeed, is home to present day North Augusta. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century residents of Chatham County, Georgia, and Beaufort County, South Carolina, can be difficult to identify as specifically Carolinian or Georgian, as they often exhibit an equal record imprint in both areas. The borders of Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida present similar situations. Hard political borders seldom serve the formatting of cultural history. When studying the decorative arts of Georgia, determining the state of origin for objects from these border areas can be challenging, if not impossible. Therefore, we embrace the neighboring regions as repositories of important related cultural expressions and interactions.

Another important goal of this exhibition is to present paint on furniture in the context of related aspects of the "built" environment, so several examples of painted architectural elements are included. Though the names of individuals who made and/or painted nineteenth-century Georgia furniture are often lost, one category of craftsman clearly connected to some painted furniture is the ornamental painter, an important fixture in interior architectural decoration in the nineteenth century.

Across the United States in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ornamental painters carried on a wide range of work and made their presence felt in many aspects of daily life, painting the signs consumers passed as they walked along Main Street, enlivening the walls of newly built homes with graining or marbling, adding scrolling lines or flowers to furniture, and producing special parade banners for clubs and fraternal organizations. Sumpter Priddy, author of American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840, notes that ornamental painting was an emerging art at the turn of the nineteenth century and that it involved skills as simple as applying a thin line on a chair back and as complicated as decorating an entire room.[1] Nancy Goyne Evans, in her study of Christian M. Nestell, an ornamental painter working in Rhode Island, also addresses the diversity of skills and services encompassed by the role of ornamental painter: painting military standards, signs, fire buckets, carriages, and ensigns for ships, as well as providing oil and water gilding and re-gilding, supplying Masonic banners and aprons, graining door and interior woodwork, and, of course, decorating furniture.[2]

Georgians provided a supportive market for ornamental painters, who possessed skills and backgrounds as diverse as painters in other parts of the country.[3] Though most of those described in Appendix I cannot be linked yet to specific surviving wall treatments or objects, their stories represent the varied backgrounds and accomplishments of ornamental painters in this state and attest to Georgia's participation in the national fashion for painted furniture and interiors. It is likely that some of the pieces of furniture in this exhibition were decorated by individuals who advertised as ornamental painters, while less formal works may have been executed by rural craftsmen influenced by their work.

Appendix II provides abstractions of selected advertisements for paints and related materials from Georgia newspapers. While these abstractions only represent a paucity of the massive evidence provided by paint advertisement in Georgia newspapers, they do clearly indicate the kinds of pigments and paints available throughout the state over time.[4] Although it is a largely random sampling, the list presents examples from across the state for part of the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth century. The importation of paints and related commodities was a massive and sustained phenomenon. The commodities represented in these advertisements were commonplace, and it is clear from one Georgia Supreme Court case source that standard freight rates existed between New York and Savannah.[5]

The use of paint grew with settlement and population, as attested by the increasing numbers of professional painters over time. The 1850 Federal Census of Georgia lists 199 painters and glaziers. By 1870, the category was "painters and varnishers," and the number had grown to 697.[6] The 1870 Census also lists forty-one "manufactories" connected to paint and varnish. These establishments probably reflected the increased marketing of prepared and premixed paints. This evidence demonstrates that Georgians of a wide range of class and race pursued color as an enhancement of life.

A review of previous publications featuring Georgia furniture, many of which are listed in the bibliography, reveals a significant amount of painted furniture in the state. Often, tables, chairs, cupboards, and chests are painted a single color (blue, green, ochre, black, brown, or red), sometimes they are grained, and occasionally they feature unusual motifs or patterns, such as the carrot-like designs on the Franklin County chest in Neat Pieces: The Plain-Style Furniture of Nineteenth-Century Georgia (cat. no. 92).[7] These publications also note many objects with remnants or evidence of paint, reminding later collectors of earlier fads for stripping furniture to reveal the wood grain. Another goal of this exhibition is to continue to raise awareness of the importance of painted surfaces.

Mrs. Charlton M. Theus, in her book Savannah Furniture, 1735-1825, and Katharine Wood Gross (Farnham), in her master's thesis, "The Sources of Furniture Sold in Savannah, 1789-1815," both document early examples of painted furniture in Georgia.[8] Theus includes a list of furniture from George Basil Spencer's estate inventory and appraisal from 1791 that includes a "pine painted bookcase."[9] A slightly later list from an auction of the estate of I. Walburger in 1797 includes "12 green chairs," while an inventory and appraisal list from 1828 for Isaiah Davenport mentions "6 plain black chairs" and "2 painted pine toilette tables."[10] Theus and Gross both reference a Windsor chair maker from Philadelphia, Nathaniel Brown, who died in 1803 and had in his estate inventory "a lot of paint, oil, jugs, brushes, and paint stores" as well as many chairs and chair parts.[11] Gross documents another early chair maker, Silas Cooper, who advertised in 1809 that he "elegantly painted, gilt and finished to order."[12] Gross also notes that Windsor chairs in numerous colors (green, yellow, black, and mahogany-color) were imported to Savannah during the period she studied.[13] Nancy G. Evans, in her extensive study of Windsor chairs, addresses importation to the South and reports that "The first mention of red Windsors occurs in the accounts of a Philadelphia supercargo, who commented in 1784 on colors suitable for the Southern market."[14] Thus, in addition to furniture made and painted in Georgia, Georgians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (and probably later) also owned imported painted furniture, and possibly imported unpainted furniture that then was painted in Georgia.


Surface History and Condition

Nowhere in the collecting of decorative arts is the question of condition more controversial than in the area of painted furniture.[15] Collectors understandably are wary of alterations of paint, and some viewers may be perplexed to find restored painted surfaces displayed in museums. As it is important to museums to present the original intent of the maker-consumer matrix when possible, fresher paint sometimes is necessary. Serious restoration or conservation is not speculative; it is based on good science. In addition to a few select objects with conserved or restored surfaces, this exhibition also includes objects with lightly altered surfaces, early but not original paint, and unrestored surfaces in order to emphasize the importance of appreciating and understanding these various states.

Several of the works in this exhibition clearly demonstrate the possibility of recovering the original paint decoration from under later layers of enamel paint. Enamel paints were ubiquitous early in the twentieth century and often deployed with a regularity that approached that of spring cleaning. It is likely that much of Georgia's painted heritage on furniture and architecture lies beneath these thick, resistant overcoats. Restoration and conservation of such works should be undertaken with caution, as the original finishes easily can be removed with later layers, thus losing an important artistic statement.

Somestimes the over-painting itself is an important part of the character of a piece of furniture. The Elbert County "safe" (no. 17) may have had several layers of dark finish applied before the present lamp-black surface was added. This accretion of paint and texture, along with the addition of naïve hardware, created a statement about the object's history. Paint as process can be viewed as a form of patina. Patination has long been a desirable characteristic for high-style furniture, and paint accretion can be a similarly appreciated feature, particularly on vernacular furniture. The evaluation of any painted surface is a judgment call employing the most subjective of parameters: the gut feeling. Nonetheless, a later paint can be an important feature of an object. Examples abound of eighteenth-century American furniture with nineteenth-century paint, the result of which is both honest and charming.

Irish furniture provides a truly dramatic example of how the social history of paint accretion interplays with its aesthetic. Throughout its colonial experience, Ireland's Catholicism had been suppressed. Each home periodically was called into use for community worship, and, as preparation for this event, the furniture in each household was painted every few years. Consequently, the heavy paint accretion of Irish furniture produces its own aesthetic, a form of patination imbued by poignant social history rather than atmosphere. During the period in which this furniture was stripped and imported to America, it lost much of its "Irishness."[16]

Original early paint decoration is a valuable and exciting commodity when encountered, but the partial survival of under-paint carefully exposed to reveal some of the original intent of the artist is also important, both artistically for itself as well as for the evidence it provides.

While some objects in this exhibition appear never to have been over-painted, these cannot be regarded as untouched. Oxidation has changed the color, shade, and compositional contrast of even these pieces of furniture. In effect, painted furniture survives in a continuum of condition. The only total loss is the com-pletely stripped surface, which has become an object more representative of the "period of knotty pine," a Colonial Revival aesthetic, than of the time of its creation. We share the spirit of decorative arts historian John Kirk's position posed in relation to furniture losses: that we should be able to enjoy what is left.[17] Collecting standards should take into consideration Georgia's inhospitable climate for objects and its tumultuous history. Few objects in the state have survived "untouched."


Outside Views and Traveler Commentary

Traveler commentary is a major historical source for comprehending any society. In the nineteenth century, Georgia was the subject of moral critique for racial slavery and post-bellum violence. This criticism, even when sincere and well founded, clouded visitors' experience of the region. Nineteenth-century moral condemnation of slavery drew heavily on its "degenerate" effect on slaveholders, not simply its injustice to African Americans. In fact, part of the opposition to the expansion of slavery resulted from fear of the effect of African Americans on the dominantly white culture of the North. Even after the Civil War, some states and locales passed laws to prevent the settlement of free black citizens.

It is in this context that visitors commented on Georgia paint, or, more precisely, its absence. Unpainted homes and furniture readily were interpreted as corrupt or untended. One of the most graphic comments was made by Dr. C. G. Parsons, a northern travel writer. Referring to the homes of slaveholders, Dr. Parsons wrote, around 1855, "Sometimes you will not see furniture amounting to five dollars in value in a wealthy planter's house. I have seen such houses without a particle of paint on the inside, or on any article of furniture. A few old oak chairs, made by hand, in the rudest manner, covered with deer skins or green hides untanned-a hard pine table, unplanned [sic]-a wooden poker, instead of a shovel and tongs, in the rock chimney fire place, comprise the whole inventory."[18]

Frances Kemble Butler, a British-born actress who married into a wealthy coastal Georgia family, took a more aesthetic view of the rudimentary planter home; speaking of her husband's bondspeople, she wrote: "There are here a gang (for that is the honorable term) of . . . carpenters. . . . The latter constructed the wash-hand stands, clothes presses, sofas, tables, etc., with which our house is furnished, and they are very neat pieces of workmanship-neither veneered or polished indeed, nor of very costly materials, but of the white pine wood planed as smooth as marble-a species of furniture not very luxurious perhaps, but all the better adapted therefore to the house itself."[19]

Northern writers readily created stereotypes from funda-mentally non-representative experiences. Parsons presents a few late settled "piney-woods" homes as representative of the interior of Georgia, and Fanny Kemble stresses a home that may have been built as a part-time household and fails to describe numerous lavish homes near her. Kemble does seem to recognize an aesthetic consistency in the simplicity of the unadorned furnishings, and, in fact, unpainted wood did represent its own aesthetic. Today, the rare survivals of unpainted interiors in Georgia include Travelers Rest (Jarrett Inn) near Toccoa and Cedar Lane Farm, a well-publicized plain-style period house near Madison. The modern eye has little trouble in discerning the beauty of the nut-brown patinated yellow pine. Such interiors and unpainted objects evoke in the contemporary viewer a sense of calm; one can regard them as visual mantras. Today's audiences do not see them as uninspired crudities of nineteenth-century living.

The modern view of unpainted surfaces might have found at least some supporting sentiment among nineteenth-century northern commentators. Through the lens of parsimony, Calvert Vaux, an architect and landscape designer, affirms the aesthetic of the unpainted "cracker" domain:

Few Persons take the trouble to calculate the real cost of paint, which seems a much more economical material to use than it is in reality. If the sums spent on external painting were added to the value of the brick or stone used in the building, they would often procure materials that would need no painting at all. And the same rule applies to the interior. Well-grained white pine costs as much as oiled Southern pine, and the latter is really beautiful material when oiled or varnished, while the graining is but a sham and pretense, however well it be executed.[20]

Since the Neat Pieces exhibition in the early 1980s, collectors of Georgia furniture have developed an appreciation for original surface; however, "original surface" has become original painted surface in the minds of many collectors. Contemporary connoisseurship demands that "original surface" apply to originally unpainted items as well.


Meaning in Color

Certainly, the best documented symbolism in connection to Georgia color is that of "haint blue." Light blue carried European connotations of heavenliness, and Africans attributed protective qualities to the color. Referring to the homes of Georgia coastal African Americans, Margaret Davis Cate wrote, in 1955: "In these homes they keep alive many of the old practices of their ancestors. They paint the doors and windows blue, believing that, since blue is the color of Heaven, the devil will not come near the blue opening in the house, so they will be safe and secure."[21]

One of he mosst significant examples of "haint blue" was uncovered during restoration of the ceiling of the slave quarters of the Owens-Thomas House in Savannah and is exhibited in that museum. The blue door in this exhibition (no. 2) came from an African American house in Eatonton, an area known for its retention of African culture. This is the area where the writer Joel Chandler Harris was infused with the African folk tales that became the basis for his children's stories.

A tragic connection between African Americans and color was related by Paul Smith, an ex-slave from Georgia who participated in the Works Progress Administration interviews with persons formerly in bondage. Smith recounted that "old folks," implying black antecedents, had been "fetched" by boats painted red. He said that the Africans were attracted to the bright red boats, which were left empty. When they investigated the ships, they were captured and brought to America as slaves. This anecdote may well represent culturally internalized stereotypes, but it seems to point to Westerners' use of color as a means to take advantage of Africans, similar to their use of colorful, but essentially valueless, trade beads to create unfair exchanges with American Indians.[22]

Some color had obvious symbolic overtones. For example, the use of turpentine and lamp-black on coffins was clearly a fitting reference to grief and loss. Similarly, one nineteenth-century Georgia diarist recounted her wedding, in which her wedding dress was white, but her second-day dress was of a color poetically named "Ashes of Roses."[23] This shift in color in combination with the name of the shade clearly represented the young woman's loss of virginity, or deflowering. On the whole, however, color was deployed less for symbolism than for personal taste and fashion, and color use was conditioned chiefly by availability. In fact, modern viewers tend to ascribe meaning to color that did not exist when it was applied. For example, the gendered indications of pink and blue are largely a twentieth-century convention. T. R. R. Cobb, a Confederate brigadier general, painted his house in Athens an emphatic rose tint. One of the patriarchs of Georgia, a state in a region known in the mid-nineteenth century for its retrenchment of patriarchy, would have seen no contradiction to his masculinity in this color choice.[24]


Graining, Especially Oaking

Graining, the practice of painting one wood to look like another, was significant to Georgia's painted milieu.[25] As noted in Appendix I, many of Georgia's ornamental painters were skilled grainers who created surfaces resembling numerous types of wood. For example, Edward King advertised in Columbus in 1858 that he did graining "in imitation of Mahogany, Black Walnut, Bird's Eye Maple and Oak," and James W. Shannon, in Atlanta in the 1880s, did graining imitating black walnut, English and French walnut, ash, mahogany, oak, rosewood, and chestnut.[26] Frequently, graining was used to make an inexpensive wood or material such as pine resemble a more expensive wood, often mahogany. Referring to his son, diarist Andrew Leary O'Brien, an Irish-born South Carolinian who moved to Georgia as a pioneer educator, wrote, in 1856, "He is buried in a Beautiful Mahogany colored Metallic burying case (or Coffin) in the burial ground at the old Methodist Church in Cuthbert, Randolph C., Geo.," illustrating the value ascribed to surfaces that looked like mahogany.[27]

The roots of graining in Georgia are deep. The estate of George Whitfield, the famous colonial evangelist, contained a "Wainscot desk and bookcase painted mahogany color."[28] Although the latter example might be an oak (as wainscot sometimes implied) desk painted to resemble mahogany, much graining that survives in Georgia consists of soft woods painted to resemble oak, sometimes referred to as "oaking." The paradox invoked by "oaking" is that, in a country filled with oak trees, the use of oak as a finished wood in cabinetmaking and interior appointment was extremely rare in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States before its late-nineteenth­century revival with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Oak was used as a primary wood in the seventeenth century, but it soon was abandoned for furniture use in North America in lieu of the more workable cabinet woods, such as walnut, cherry, and maple, afforded by that continent. While oak went out of style in early-eighteenth­century America, its use flourished in provincial Britain.[29]

Oak may have been rarely used in Georgia, but it certainly served for utilitarian purposes. The coast of Georgia from 1790 to 1820 was full of activity devoted to the Live Oak, such as ship building, which had evolved to need the large irregular timbers only available from this tree. The coast teemed with American and foreign shipwrights, and Georgia's economy was tied deeply to this wood.[30] Also, it is interesting that white oak planks were offered for sale in Savannah on November 13, 1802, from William Brown, just arrived in the schooner Betsey.[31] Again, this reference supports the idea that oak served specific utilitarian needs. Yet another example of a similar functional usage of oak comes from a well-documented slave carpenter, Woodson, who was in bondage to William Duncan of Savannah and worked there and in Cass County near the mountains. While Woodson is recorded as making and selling furniture, including bookcases and tables (on his "own" time), which evidence suggests were primarily of mahogany and walnut, he did make a wagon body of oak, "which Duncan reported was 'as good a piece of work as anyone can do.'"[32]

In England, the retention of large amounts of oak interior wainscoting and oak furniture, along with its continued use in provincial areas, made this important wood part of that country's cultural identity. It is ironic that American use of oak was negligible but that oak graining was common in the United States. At the heart of this paradox is the fact that Americans continued to derive their cultural identity in part from British cultural icons. The literature of Britain, particularly romantic novels, was the stock of American education and consumption and is laced with multitudinous references to the centrality of oak in the settings of its life and drama.[33]

Romantic British literature emphasized the native wood that had come to be seen as the embodiment of British, particularly English, character. The Gothic revival aesthetic emphasized oak to the point that many early painted pieces of furniture were stripped to accommodate this interest. The British use of oak is ironic in that some of the wood used was American oak. The Gillows firm, a notable and fashionable cabinetmaking business, recorded the use of American oak in its products.[34] As indicated by this firm's reference to oak, some urban work, such as the "fumed" oak furniture of the second quarter of the nineteenth century (which was treated with ammonia to darken or richen the color of the oak) continued to be produced, and token amounts of this furniture appear to have made it to the South. In South Carolina, Elizabeth Allston lamented the wreckage of Sherman's army: "They set fire to the house . . . have destroyed everything in the house . . . . Some beautiful old English oak chairs they smashed and took the seats off them."[35]

The use of oak graining was ubiquitous throughout the United States, and notable examples exist in Georgia; earlier oaking in the state may well have been connected to the Regency expression of William Jay's architecture, which the Oak Room in the Telfair Mansion exemplifies.[36] The Old Governor's Mansion in Milledgeville exhibits remnants of a complex floor cloth that feature an oak-grained background. The Ware-Lyndon House in Athens also displays oak graining, as does the Callaway home at Callaway Plantation near Washington, Georgia. Numerous pieces of vernacular furniture in Georgia have been recorded with oak graining. The oak graining in Hay House in Macon was produced by a professional ornamental painter. It contrasts strongly with the oak graining on the wardrobe in this exhibition, which was produced by a vernacular painter (no. 18).

After referencing prominent designer and writer A. J. Downing, an Augusta newspaper highlighted the popularity of oaking through its description in 1860 of an unidentified house:

We have seen the prettiest effects produced by the following means: The hall was papered with oak paper, in panels; the wood work, doors, sash, mouldings, &c., being grained of a slightly darker shade of oak, and the whole neatly varnished; a geometrically figured oil cloth of three colors: brown, stone color, and white, covered the floor; whilst the furniture consisted simply of two walnut chairs of a Gothic pattern, and a table and hat-rack of a similar style. . . . All the interior wood work was grained to resemble oak, and varnished. The only exception being the washboards, which were marbled in imitation of Egyptian black marble.[37]

Another notable example of this treatment is the Bird-Pierce-Campbell House, from the first half of the nineteenth century, on Broad Street in Sparta (the former residence of the late David Williams), Hancock County, which exhibits traces of oak graining on its woodwork as well as the imprint of grained wallpaper on its early plaster surfaces. A later house, also in Hancock County (presently the home of Leonard Wirkus), displays oak-grained walls and walnut-grained doors and trim. This latter example appears to date from 1870 to 1890.

Not all nineteenth-century references to oaking exhibit enthusiasm for the practice. Capt. George W. Pepper of General William Tecumseh Sherman's staff likened the skin color of a biracial slave to what "house-painters palm off as imitation of oak" and went on to describe that color as "sickly, pale yellow."[38]

Thus, Georgians (and other Americans) eschewed the actual use of oak during most of the nineteenth century but painted other woods to look like oak. The irony is emphasized by the availability of oak in Georgia and the international export of the wood. The predominance of English design patterns and manuals certainly contributed to the presence of American oaking, but the literary imagination and the persistent American self-identification with Britain's Gothic revival instilled this practice. Hundreds of British literary references to oak created an icon for the "fancying" of old England.[39] This reference to cultural origins undoubtedly played well in the South, where the planter class saw themselves in terms of English gentry and local yeoman farmers of prominence often were referred to as "Squire." Oaking, like much ornamental painting, was the point of departure for a flight of fancy, a sort of time travel to one's presumed origins. As such, oaking may have reflected the complex American preoccupation with origins and shifting identities.

The use of oaking was a reach for antiquity in the Anglo world just as marbleizing was a reach for the classical. The deployment of oak graining, both consciously and unconsciously, indicated that Americans still regarded "taste" as a commodity from the old world. In nineteenth-century Georgia, medieval common law was routinely invoked and Blackstone's Commentaries on the Common Law was a ubiquitous feature of Georgia domestic libraries. In 1859, the architectural specifications for a new courthouse for Banks County demanded a contract with the builder in which "Doors [were] to be well painted oak color, [and] to be made with lumber two inches thick . . . . Doors painted oak color well hung with rought [sic] hinges and with good nob [sic] locks affixed."[40] In the context of the Banks County Historic Courthouse, the presence of "oaken" doors underlined the ancient roots of the law that was discussed routinely in that setting.


Final Thoughts

The forces that shaped American painted material culture are embedded in the Georgia oeuvre. These influences reached the lower southern Piedmont, Georgia included, in a different sequence than in other colonies, and integration, acculturation, and a general mixing of sources resulted in a peculiar amalgamation of styles. For example, many painted pieces of furniture in Georgia are neither predominantly English nor Germanic in their decoration. The seminal settlement of Franklin County was largely from second-generation Pennsylvania families living in North Carolina's Yadkin River Valley. Among these settlers were Germanic and English, as well as African and Huguenot, descendants. This demography spread across the upper Piedmont. Significantly, part of Walton County was originally Old Franklin County, an area that has produced notable paint-decorated furniture. This production is likely a tendency inherited from the Delaware River Valley origins of some of its settlers. Likewise, original Wilkes County, between Franklin County and Augusta, was settled predominantly by people from the lower Chesapeake region. Patterns of culture transferred from that region reflect generations of acculturation. The painted chair in the collections of the Georgia Museum of Art (no. 5), for example, has four turned feet, a characteristic of Chesapeake turned chairs that probably results from French Huguenot influence.

This exhibition exissts in a continuum of research conducted in the field of Georgia decorative arts. We gratefully acknowledge the earlier work done on Georgia painted furniture and note the following questions raised during research for this exhibition in the hope that future scholars will be able to address them: How were washes used on furniture in Georgia?[41] Did schoolgirls paint furniture in Georgia? What were the differences between the kinds of importations purchased by the planter class versus those purchased by yeoman farmers? What would a closer scholarly examination of the few identifiable groups of furniture, such as the tartan chests, contribute to our understanding of the general milieu?[42] What would a photographic survey of early interior painted treatments show about regional patterns of architectural history?

The continued study of Georgia painted furniture is likely to reveal only slight differences from the national norm. It is, however, interesting to see this body of objects as representative of the far-reaching integration of American culture. Individual examples, or features, of Georgia pieces referencing almost all aspects of the nation can be found. In the words of Deanne Deavours, who in large part introduced Georgia vernacular furniture to the national canon: "Americana means Southern too."


Curator, Henry D. Green Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts, Georgia Museum of Art


Senior Archivist, Georgia Archives


Mary Cronic Chest

The initials painted on this chest (no. 11), dated 1839, are those of Mary Ann "Polly" Cronic. She was born in 1823, the sixth child of John Simeon Cronic (b. 1781 Orangeburg, South Carolina; d. 1833 or 1840, Walton County, Georgia) and Jane Jennie Pike (b. 1782, Connecticut or South Carolina; d. 1863, Jackson County, Georgia). By at least 1824, John and Jane lived in Walton County, where Polly was born and this chest likely was made. Two years before the date on the chest, a John Cronic, probably Polly's father or brother, is listed as a trustee of Union Hill Academy in Walton County, which may be an important detail in determining the circumstances of the origin of the chest's decoration. Though the 1860 and 1870 Censuses indicate that Polly could neither read nor write, and the 1880 Census that she could not write, it seems unlikely that she was illiterate, given her family's connection to an academy.

Polly married Anderson Harrison Titshaw (b. 1823, Edgefield District, South Carolina; d. 1888, buried in Hall County, Georgia) in 1846 in Walton County, and by the mid-1850s they were living in Jackson County, where Anderson was a farmer. The Titshaw and Cronic families have a long history together; both probably were originally German, both settled in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, by the early 1750s, and both were migrating to the same militia district in Walton County, Georgia, in the early 1800s. Numerous marriages have occurred between the families.

Anderson served in the Confederate States Army and was captured in Virginia in 1864. He and Polly were charter members of the New Liberty United Methodist Church, organized in 1873, in Jackson County. In 1882, she filed for divorce in Jackson County, where she died and was buried in 1883.

Polly and Anderson had seven children, the fifth being Simeon Simpson Titshaw, who was born in 1854 in Hoschton in Jackson County, Georgia, and died in 1914 in Buford, Georgia. He married Alcye Adeline Phillips (b. 1859; d. 1946, Newnan, Georgia), and they were the second generation to own the chest. Like his father, Simeon was a farmer. By 1900, he and his wife were living in Gwinnett County, where they remained until at least the mid 1910s. She died in Coweta County.

They had one child, John Anderson Preston

"J. A. P." Titshaw, who was born in 1878 and died in 1967 in Coweta County, Georgia. His first wife, Leantha Ola Brown, whom he had married in 1900 in Gwinnett County and with whom he had four children, died in 1907, also in Gwinnett County. He remarried in 1918 in Gwinnett County to Nancy Elizabeth "Lizzie" Puckett (b. 1878; d. 1963, buried in Coweta County, Georgia), and she and J. A. P. were the third generation to own the chest.

Lizzie and J. A. P. had one child, Willie Mae Titshaw, who was born in 1919 and died in 2000 in Bremen, Haralson County, Georgia. She married Charles Page Rumph (b. 1918, Camilla, Georgia; d. 1992, Albany, Georgia) in 1956. (She later married Earl Winters [b. 1906; d. 1982, Coweta] in 1967.) Willie Mae received the chest from her mother, and passed it to her only child, Vickie Elizabeth Rumph, born in 1957 and the last family member to own the chest. According to Vickie, the last few generations especially treasured the "chist," as they called it, and let it leave the family only after facing extreme hardship.[43]

Vickie recalled many of the items stored in the chest over time: the family Bible, rationing coupons, quilts made by Willie Mae and by Nancy Titshaw, J. A. P.'s leather tools, and objects belonging to Simeon Titshaw. J. A. P. explained to Vickie that Mary Cronic had had a difficult life, and Vickie understood the chest to be Mary's dower or hope chest. Vickie also related the care her mother took when she moved the chest: "I remember when we moved from the old 'Summers' homestead on Corinth Road in Newnan how it was raining. Momma wrapped the chest up as if it were me on the back of the old International Pickup truck belonging to Mr. Earl Winters. I know she rode on the back with an old piece of plastic covering it, along with all of the Quilts she could possibly find. The chest never got wet ever!" She also wrote, "How ultimately precious it has been throughout the Cronic and Titshaw families, one generation after another," and described how even when the family did not have enough food in the home, they had happiness and many memories of the cherished chest.[44]

The maker and painter of this chest remain unidentified. The surface is extremely oxidized, but the ground color appears to be in the yellow family, possibly ochre. The painter also used a soft red, a dark and apparently somewhat stable green, and possibly oyster white for a few of the dots. The cotton and pine trees were executed freehand, while the dots were made using a stencil or stamp. The painter went back over the leaves and incised lines to suggest veins. The chest is unique among Georgia painted furniture and without its carefully documented provenance could easily be mistaken for an example from any other area of the Southern backcountry.


Alsabrook "Huntboard"

This sideboard or slab (no. 23) has a recovery history of descent in the Alsabrook family of Randolph County, Alabama. The family lived within a few miles of the Georgia border, their names occur in records throughout the region, and this piece of furniture may have been constructed and painted in either state.

In the twentieth century, this form, characterized by its extreme verticality and shallow case and widely recognized as distinctly southern, began to be called a huntboard. The origin of the term huntboard and the original use of this type of furniture are unclear, although many speculations exist. The word "huntboard" is not found in wills or estate inventories in the nineteenth century. Instead, there are references to "slabs," which could also refer to tables, and "sideboards," which could also refer to the lower and wider form. The most frequently cited explanation for the term is that this form was associated with the hunt. Possibly, after a long day of riding, hunters would stand around the tall huntboard, moved outdoors for the occasion, to take refreshment. The proportions likely developed to adapt to the architectural scale in the South, where ceilings were high.[45]

The remarkable freehand decoration on this piece of furniture conveys both control and artistic freedom. The graining does not try to replicate a particular wood with verisimilitude; rather, the gestures of graining take on their own expressive characteristics. Between the large, swooping forms on the drawers is a central door, painted to suggest a blond wood panel framed by carefully arranged wood veneers. Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester, in The Flowering of American Folk Art, liken this type of uninhibited ornamentation to the creations of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s.[46]


Milledgeville Wainscot

The house in Milledgeville from which this piece of wainscot came was torn down in the 1960s. Remarkably, someone salvaged this signed section of the wall, preserving a hint of the formal, Neoclassical character of the room. The wainscot has blue trim molding, a red background, and yellow cut corner painted panels with red graining or feathering. Samuel Holland, who may have been an itinerant ornamental painter, signed his work and dated it 1818. Frederick Doveton Nichols, in The Early Architecture of Georgia, describes a house in Milledgeville with painted and grained wainscot and a marbleized fireplace as having a typical interior painted finish of the period 1808 to 1830, indicating that this architectural fragment likely is representative of Milledgeville Federal architecture.[47]


Wardrobe with Moorish Arches

Of all the pieces of furniture in this exhibition, this wardrobe (no. 20) seems the most likely to have been decorated by an ornamental painter. The skillfully executed rosewood graining and Moorish arches easily could translate to an architectural setting.[48] In the mid-nineteenth century, such exoticism permeated Georgia culture, so this wardrobe would have been particularly fashionable. The emulation of rosewood reflects an exoticism that emphasized tropical locales. Brazil, the source of most rosewood, occupied a notable place in the imagination of the Anglo-American mind. The plantation society there, in combination with the huge reserves of unexplored land, created an idea of a parallel United States to the South, especially in the southern perspective. (In fact, Brazil was the chosen point of exile for thousands of Southerners at the end of the Civil War.) The use of the Moorish arch was derived from the revival architecture that celebrated the area of the Mediterranean Sea. These up-to-date motifs, along with the competent, crisp execution of the composition, suggest a professional hand.


Elbert County "Safe"

Although this piece (no. 17) is referred to in the Heard family as a "safe," it is not certain whether this nomenclature signifies the nineteenth-century term for cupboard or whether this item was used to store important papers. Like many such utilitarian objects, it may have had numerous uses over time. It may have been created as a bedside commode, with the door concealing a chamber pot, or it may have been designed for storage of food items, perhaps sugar. The later adaptation of heavy hardware could well have been to secure this latter imported commodity, or this change could have been made with the filing of important papers, money, or other valuables in mind.

The accretion of more than one finish on the piece of furniture, including layers of lamp-black and varnish, gives it an acquired character that is appealing to the tutored eye. Although the "safe" displays accomplished joinery, the drawer face on this object is crudely chamfered. Its early wooden pulls punctuate the composition of the box, and its tapered legs add interesting lift.


Oglethorpe County Quilt Frame

Quilt frames took many forms in the nineteenth century, from simple squares balanced on four chairs or hung from the ceiling to sturdy structures with table-like legs.[49]

The notable aspect of this utilitarian form is its paint embellishment and the pains taken to chamfer its post components, apparently to lighten its appearance.[50] The embellishment of utilitarian items associated with women's work was often the result of a symbolic or dower gift. Such an item could be made or provided by a suitor or an older male relative, and its decoration honors the female's future role in the family and community. These added details also may have brightened the repetitiveness of the work of quilting or may have celebrated the sense of community when several women worked together to finish a quilt. Typically, quilt frames had strong cloth strips attached to the long edges, as seen here, to which the quilt could be basted. Instead of providing enough room to stretch an entire quilt, this frame is designed so that the quilt is rolled from one side to the other, providing a narrow section of quilt surface to work on and occupying a minimum of space.



Michael Canavan advertised in Savannah in 1804 that he conducted "all manner of ornamental and coach painting, with mantlings, arms, ciphers or any other kind of ornaments that may appear most suitable to taste and fancy," as well as "sign and house, together with riding and chamber chair painting both ornamental and plain, gilding, etc."[51] He acknowledged being a stranger to Savannah and offered to "produce specimens of his workmanship for the convincing satisfaction" of potential patrons.[52]

In 1822, Patrick Marlow advertised in Savannah that his business had recently moved to a new address near the bay, where he planned to continue painting, gilding, glazing, and paper hanging, "on the most modern and approved principles." Among his skills were painting walls in "Oil or Destemper [sic] Colours" and ornamenting them "in the most Fashionable European style." He also kept on hand various oils, paints, and brushes and sold mixed colors with directions for using them, if required. He noted that he attended to orders from the country, meaning smaller towns and other areas outside of the city.[53]

Alexander Meldrum, in 1831, also advertised that he painted and ornamented walls "in Oils or Water Colors." Additionally, he did house, sign, and ornamental painting, in particular "Imitations of Fancy Woods, Marbles, & c." He listed Thomas Young, Esq., as a reference and gave the address of his "Paint shop" as Johnson's Square.[54]

John Oliver established his painting business in 1840, and continued working until the 1880s as a house and sign painter, gilder, grainer, and glazier. He advertised in the 1871­72 city directory that his was an "old established paint shop." He also dealt in paints, oils, brushes, glass, sashes, blinds, doors, and more, calling his shop "Oliver Paint and Oil House."[55]

After the Civil War, Irish-born Christopher Murphy (ca. 1836-1895) began working as a painter in Savannah and soon established a partnership with Charles Clark. Murphy & Clark advertised as house, sign, ship, and steamboat painters in 1870. They did gilding, graining, marbling, glazing, and paper hanging and also sold paints, oils, and related materials.[56] In 1874, they noted that they were prepared "to offer estimates for every description of Painting in any part of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida."[57] Murphy's son, Christopher P. H. Murphy (1869­1939), joined the business in 1888 but also developed an interest in traditional fine arts painting.[58]



Numerous ornamental painters worked in Augusta, including Richard P. Spelman (or Spellman) and his son Richard P. Spelman, Jr., both of whom were born in New York, around 1796 and 1822, respectively. Spelman, Sr., advertised in Augusta by 1826, though an advertisement from that year indicates that he was continuing his existing business of "House, Sign, and Ornamental Painting at his old Shop," and that he also did "Writing and enameling on Glass, Painting and Gilding, on Silk, re-varnishing and polishing piano fortes, re-gilding fancy chairs, &c.," as well as "Preparing Oil and water colours for Amateurs."[59] The next year he moved from his old location, opposite the Planters' Hotel, to No. 6 Ansley's Range.[60] In the following few years he added a line to his advertisement indicating that he would pay cash for old sign board, which, presumably, he would reuse.[61] In 1830, he advertised an additional service, selling "Mixed Paint of all colors and in any quantity" and loaning suitable brushes.[62] The 1850 Census lists both father and son as painters and married (the father to a woman from South Carolina and the son to a woman from Georgia) with children. The 1860 Census lists Spelman, Sr., more specifically as a sign painter. Spelman, Jr., appears again in the 1880 Census as a painter, and his son William, born ca. 1855, is also listed as a painter.

William B. Davies advertised in Augusta in 1830 that, in addition to house, sign, and ornamental painting, he also did glazing, sign painting, and chair painting.[63]

C. M. Curtis & Co. advertised in 1835 as a new business in house and sign painting, gilding, glazing, and imitation of wood and marble. Curtis offered as references Dr. Thomas I. Wray, John W. Wilde, Esq., Ralph Ketchum, Esq., Mr. E. W. Spotford, Mr. P. McGran, and Messrs. Price & Mallery. The company proclaimed that they "intend[ed] conducting the above business in all its various branches and hope[d] by punctuality and attention to merit the patronage of their friends and the public in general."[64] Ezra F. Doolittle was another ornamental painter originally from New York working in Augusta by the later nineteenth century. According to the 1882 city directory, he employed other painters, including African Americans[65]

Documentation of one ornamental painter, States Lewis, reflects the potentially itinerant nature of the craftsman. Lewis advertised in Augusta in 1830 that he did "House, Sign, and Ornamental Painting" as well as "Glazing and Paper Hanging."[66] Three years later, he advertised in Athens that he intended to move there, and informed readers that he had "served a regular apprenticeship at the above line of business [House and Sign Painting, Glazing and Paper Hanging]."[67] He subsequently appears in Columbus, where he advertised house and sign painting and "a splendid assortment of window shades . . . far superior to any offered for sale in a Southern market," in 1838 and is listed in the 1840 and 1850 Censuses.[68] He may have moved yet again, as a States Lewis appears in the 1855 Alabama Census in Macon County.[69]



Daniel T. Rea, a third-generation painter, was born in Massachusetts around 1810 and worked in Macon. He first married Elizabeth Graves (b. ca. 1815, Virginia; d. 1837, Georgia) and later married Louisa J. Craig from Columbia, South Carolina, in 1839. He advertised in 1836, "House and Sign Painting, Chair Painting, Oil Nut and Burnished Gilding, Gilding and Glazing, Paper Hanging, and Enamelling seals," and that he employed "some of the most efficient workmen in the state."[70] An advertisement from 1837 replaces "Chair Painting" with "Fancy Chair Painting," and adds "Imitation of Woods and Marble."[71] Rea sold his business to William Pinkham in 1840.[72] He later moved to Mobile, Alabama, where he married Eliza Laws (born in Tennessee around 1828) in 1857, and remained there until at least 1880.[73[ Rea likely was connected with Daniel Rea & Son, a prominent ornamental painting firm in Boston.[74]

In 1841, William C. Houghton advertised a variety of ornamental painting areas, "Standards, Transparencies . . . Window Shades, Signs," as well as graining, marbling, and, interestingly, "Landscapes on walls."[75] Houghton associated with William H. Clarke, Jr., who was a fancy, sign, and ornamental painter.[76] H. L. Dure advertised that, in addition to house, sign, and ornamental painting, he also revarnished old chairs.[77] A Mr. Patterson similarly advertised house, sign, and ornamental painting as well as the repainting of old chairs. Sherwood & Patterson advertised in 1846 that, along with house, sign, and ornamental painting and graining, they re-bottomed, painted, and gilded old chairs.[78] William G. Brown advertised house, chair, and ornamental painting.[79]

Macon newspapers record an abundance of paint availability, primarily at drugstores, but also at the shops of individuals who worked as ornamental painters. An early painter, Francis H. Hickimburg, advertised in 1825 that he had just opened a "Painting shop" and that he would do house and sign painting. He kept "Ready mixed Paints of all colours . . . constantly on hand."[80] One store in 1839 was called a "Paint & Oil Store." This shop, owned by Clark and Smith, offered "paints of all colors, ready prepared and mixt [sic] for use" and advertised that they were prepared to do house, sign, and ornamental painting.[81] Similarly, J. H. & W. S. Ellis sold a variety of paints and varnishes and advertised separately that they did "House Painting, plain and ornamental, either in the city or country," and that they repainted and ornamented chairs, painted signs, and did "Fancy painting of various descriptions."[82]



C. S. Oliver, who was born in England ca. 1805, operated a furniture warehouse by 1846 in Athens. In addition to making and selling "every description of Furniture," he "repaired, cleaned and varnished" old furniture and worked as a house, sign, and ornamental painter.[83] He was in Clarke County by at least 1840, and was still working as a painter, according to Census records, in 1850, 1860 and 1870.

In Athens, the Parr family worked in ornamental painting for several generations. Benjamin H. Parr (born around 1815 in Georgia, married to Sarah Sison around 1849), was a house painter in Athens by mid-century, and the 1850 Census lists him and his sons James S. and Bowles W. as painters.[84] The 1870 Census lists Benjamin as a farmer and his son Vardy J. as a house painter. The 1880 Census records him and two sons, Charles A. and MacKafee (or McAffee), as painters. In 1879, Parr & Brothers advertised "House and Sign Painting, Graining, Marbling, Glazing, Paper Hanging, &c.," as well as kalsomining (a form of whitewashing).[85] Like many other painters, they noted that work in the country would be attended to promptly. Charles Morton Strahan, in his book Clarke County, Ga. and the City of Athens (1893), describes the Parr Brothers' business, which operated until 1904, as having a store on Jackson Street and a paint mill on West Broad Street. He notes that three of the brothers were formally involved with the firm, while seven brothers were active in the painting business in Athens, following in the footsteps of their father.[86] He added that their work was well done, that they used "the best grades of paints," that they did exterior work and interior work, and that one of their recent jobs was for the First Methodist Church. He wrote, "A majority of the signs which adorn the business part of the city is the result of their handiwork." According to Strahan, at their mill they ground and mixed paints for others as well as for their own use.[87] They advertised in the 1889 city directory that, in addition to being house and sign painters, they were dealers in wallpaper, paints, oil, varnishes, and brushes. Calvin W. Parr, son of Benjamin H. Parr and senior partner in 1893 of Parr Brothers, built a house in Athens in 1889 on Bloomfield Street that features elaborate stenciled decoration on the walls and ceilings, one of his specialties.[88]



In 1853, E. T. Taylor & Co. manufactured sashes, blinds, and panel doors and offered "Doors painted plain, or grained, in the highest style of the art."[89] Moses Garrett (born in South Carolina around 1801) advertised in 1841 extensive information about his window blind and sash factory and mentioned his work as a house, sign, and fancy painter.[90] Other individuals listed in his household in the 1850 Census include B. A. Patillo, a carpenter; John Hitchcock, a machinist; and Christopher Bowen (or Bowers), a painter. Edward J. King (born in Ireland around 1819) advertised in Columbus in 1858 that he did house, sign, and fresco painting, as well as "GRAINING in imitation of Mahogany, Black Walnut, Bird's Eye Maple and Oak."[91]



Atlanta supported many ornamental painters both before and after the Civil War, including John A. Paris and William Mackie (or Mackey). According to Carlyn Crannell, in her dissertation on art activity in Atlanta, Paris (born about 1830 in South Carolina) advertised in the Georgia Temperance Crusader in 1859 that he did all types of house and sign painting, including "Graining, Fresco and Ornamental Work, and Imitation of all kinds of Wood and Stone."[92] He advertised in 1877 that he did house and sign painting in all of its branches and is listed in the 1880 Census as a sign painter.[93] Mackie (born around 1827 in Scotland, according to the 1860 Census) also advertised in 1859 in the Georgia Temperance Crusader that he was a "fresco painter and grainer" and that he had moved to Atlanta permanently. He announced that he created show cards and "carved letters made to order in any style."[94] He is listed as a sign painter in the 1860 Census. After the war, he won awards for gilding on glass and sign painting at the 1871 state fair.[95] In 1873, Mackie, now called "a celebrated painter," executed an elaborate series of figural wall paintings featuring Knights Templars for the new Hall of the Coeur de Lion Commandery, No. 4, Knights Templars, at the corner of Pryor and Decatur Streets.[96] Two years later Mackie lost all of his effects in a fire on Whitehall Street.[97]

An article after the war notes that the paint business was strong in Atlanta because the city consumed so much paint during rebuilding.[98] C. S. Oliver, possibly the same one working in Athens, "exhibited remarkable skill in fancy painting" in 1869, when he decorated the interior of the store occupied by Peck, DeSaulles & Co.[99] C. J. Oliver, who was born in England around 1835, advertised in 1873 that he did kalsomining, "as well as Graining, and all other kinds of Plain and Ornamental House Painting."[100] That same year Dan McDuffie and Brother advertised as "Plain and Ornamental Plasterers."[101] David F. Holloway is listed as a house painter in Newberry County, South Carolina, in 1870 and advertised in 1876 in Atlanta that he was prepared to do "Painting & Graining" and "House and Sign Painting."[102] He was still in Fulton County in 1880.

James W. Shannon, another post-war ornamental painter, specialized in graining and, in 1885, boasted that he was "one of the finest grainers in the south."[103] He did graining work for the drugstore of Stoney & Sauger. The Atlanta Constitution includes the following description: "The work done by Mr. Shannon for Stoney & Sauger has been much admired, as, indeed, it should be. The entire wood work, including the shelving, counters, doors and prescriptions case, have been painted in black walnut finish. He has introduced panels of English and French walnut of a lighter shade. The effect produced by these panels is charming, and they look as if they were raised, though they are worked on a perfectly flat surface[.] So perfect has Mr. Shannon done the painting, that many have already thought it genuine walnut."[104] Also about this time he did graining in the residence of C. Howard Finley on Washington Street. He specialized in ash, though he also did mahogany, oak, rosewood, and chestnut; the Atlanta Constitution stated that he had "attained perfection in the art of graining or imitating natural woods," and that he learned his trade by copying natural woods. He worked with R. C. Bosche & Co., sign painters.[105]

Another ornamental painter, James D. Pannell, made news for his troubles with women. In 1885, the Atlanta Constitution reported that Pannell's home was Carroll County, where he had a wife and several children. Subsequently, he moved to Atlanta with one child and they lived with a woman whom he introduced as his wife. The sheriff took him back to Carrollton, where he promised to provide for his family but quickly left town. About a month later, he was arrested in Texas for marrying or attempting to marry again. Shortly before the article in the Atlanta Constitution, he had appeared in Selma, Alabama, a town "noted for its pretty ladies," where "his reputation as a painter spread in the city and work poured in upon him." He soon became engaged to a young woman, but his marriage plans were foiled when a gentleman from Atlanta traveling through Selma revealed Pannell's history to the young woman's brothers.[106] Pannell escaped again, possibly to practice his trade in yet another city.



Charles Poland, who was born in Germany around 1830, advertised in Dublin, Georgia, in 1878 that he would do "House, Sign and Ornamental Painting," as well as "Graining, Papering, and Calsomining, Plastering, and Repairing of Plastering." Additionally, he noted that he would "Paint Buggies."[107] The local newspaper noted with pride two instances of Poland's work with stores: in 1878, he did the painting for the new store for Jones & Company, and the newspaper lauded his work and the carpenter's as "a perpetual and eloquent advertisement of their faithfulness and skill," and in 1880, the newspaper noted that it was "generally agreed" that Poland "did the best job of painting and graining" the counters and shelves of J. W. Peacock & Company's store "that he has ever done in Dublin."[108] The paper also reported on signs he painted, including a "flaming new sign" for the new drugstore in 1879 and the sign for a Mr. Maddox's bar a week later and claimed that "the State can not produce a more skillful handler of the brush."[109] According to the newspaper, he traveled often for jobs in other towns, including Condor and Montezuma. While the 1870 Census lists his occupation as farmer, he is listed in the 1860, 1880, and 1890 Censuses as a painter. He married a woman from Georgia named Mary, and they had several children. Though clippings from Laurens County newspapers indicate that in 1884 he was building a new home in Thomasville, he evidently remained in or returned to Laurens County, where he died in 1921.[110]


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