Photo depicts artist John Lamb's "North Joliet" piece, about 18 inches by 9 inches, which shows a two-cabined canal boat traveling along the Illinois and Michigan canal in primary colors.

photo by: Matthew Gilson

Preservation Magazine, Summer 2021

A Folk Artist Depicts Life on a Historic Illinois Canal

Monet had Normandy and Vermeer used Dutch interiors for inspiration; folk artist John Lamb looked to the Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal. For decades, the longtime Lewis University history professor, now in his mid-90s, made rough-hewn wood carvings depicting everyday waterfront scenes. Now those carvings—including the one shown here, labeled “North Joliet, 1872”—are on display in the exhibit “Life Along the Canal: The Art of John M. Lamb” at the Gaylord Building, a National Trust Historic Site in Lockport, Illinois.

The North Joliet piece, about 18 inches by 9 inches, shows a two-cabined canal boat traveling along the I&M. “The boats were used to transport goods and people,” says Pamela Owens, executive director of the Gaylord Building. The canal operated starting in 1848 and played a key role in regional commerce, but its importance waned around the turn of the century, due to the rise of rail transportation and the building of a separate shipping canal.

In Lamb’s carving, the bright hues of the boat, rooftops, sun, and sky create an idyllic mood, and the textured frame (which is part of the same piece of wood) elevates the sense that the viewer is entering a pastoral, self-contained world. Also part of the exhibit are Lamb’s carved walking sticks, statues, and even a ticket booth used for the Old Canal Days festival, an annual Lockport event that he helped start. “He wanted the festival to draw attention to the significance of the canal communities,” Owens says. His folk art accomplishes the same feat.

Headshot Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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