Local Historical Societies and the Making of Seven Cousins for a Horse
Playwright Tammy Ryan is no stranger to commissions. Her wide-ranging work has been commissioned, developed, and performed at regional theaters across the United States and around the world. While many of her plays, such as Molly’s Hammer, The Music Lesson, Tar Beach, and Pig, could be called period pieces, her recent commission from Thrown Stone challenged her to unearth a much older story — one of a little-known self-taught painter born in 1788: Ammi Phillips. Ryan embarked on a fascinating journey into the past, weaving together the emotionally compelling story of the folk artist now acknowledged as the most prolific in American History.
Docents to History
Ryan’s research included two trips to “Ammi Country,” from his birthplace in Colebrook, Connecticut, to his homes in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and Troy, New York, to his final resting place in Amenia, New York, and the numerous other towns and hamlets where he plied his trade as a traveling limner, or portrait artist, for more than fifty years in the 19th century. Every step of the way, Ryan was met by knowledgeable curators and historians, whose passion for preserving history sparked her artistic vision:
- Alexander Dubois and Linda Hocking of the Litchfield Historical Society
- Hildegard Grob of the Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center
- Brandon Lisi of the Sharon Historical Society
- Elizabeth Reiss of the Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy
- Nancy Rowe of the Ridgefield Historical Society
- Kathy T. Sheehan of the Hart Cluett Museum
- Diane Shewchuk of the Albany Institute of History & Art
- Marge Smith of the Kent Historical Society
- Betsy Strauss of the Amenia Historical Society
These generous individuals, and Emelie Gevalt of The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, shared their expertise and enriched the playwright’s understanding of Ammi Phillips’s world.
An Unusual Bargain
During her research trip, a pivotal moment occurred at the archives of the Litchfield Historical Society, where, curator Alex Dubois showed her a set of remarkable portraits of Phillips’s cousins: Nisus Kinney, his daughter, Sarah Kinney, and his son-in-law, Lucius Culver. These three portraits were part of a set of seven (only four now survive) that were bartered by the artist in exchange for “a fine horse.”
This unleashed a cascade of questions in Ryan. Why would the Kinneys commission seven portraits? And what compelled Ammi Phillips to barter his paintings for a horse?
“That’s when I knew I had a story,” remarked Ryan. “It was as if Nisus Kinney were speaking to me, urging me on to explore the reasons behind this unusual bargain.”
As she dug deeper, the complex and emotionally charged circumstances behind this agreement began to form the backbone of Seven Cousins for a Horse — a way to see Ammi Phillips and the times he lived in through the few days in July, 1848 that he spent painting the Kinneys.
A Changing America
In 1848, America was going through massive economic and social change. In the Northeast, the industrial revolution was in full swing, with new technologies like the locomotive and the daguerreotype changing the way people both lived and perceived themselves. In Connecticut, the 65-year gradual abolition of chattel slavery was finally complete. In New York, the Seneca Falls convention was about to make the first calls for a radical new idea: Universal Suffrage. This was also a time of epidemic tuberculosis and utopian movements, which sparked fear, hope, and a good measure of misinformation on what was then the American frontier. Ammi Phillips and his cousins persevered in these difficult times through the bonds of family and the transcendent power of art to help us see and be seen.
A Theatrical Landmark
In Seven Cousins for a Horse, audiences have the opportunity to witness a theatrical landmark, inspired by the people whose desires, challenges, and lived experiences uncannily resemble ours today. “I hope audiences will discover a deep appreciation of Phillips’s life and work,” said Ryan. “But more than that, I hope they will see something they recognize in the play — that it will spark their curiosity about where we’ve been, and where we’re going.”
“Local historical societies play a crucial role in preserving and sharing our heritage,” added Thrown Stone Co-Artistic Director Jonathan Winn, “We hope Seven Cousins will inspire audiences to embark on their own research and connect with the rich tapestry of our past.”