Everyone loves a story about hidden codes and secret symbols. They’re part of the enduring mainstream appeal of groups like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, two fraternities with habits of cloaking their intellectual property and activities in complicated imagery and ritual.
Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art is an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum centered around the imagery from these two groups. More than 190 artifacts, donated as a collection by Kendra and Allen Daniels, span a period of time from the late-18th century to the early 20th.
The collection includes paintings and sculptures, quilts and furniture, ritual props and grave-markers. The items aren’t united by maker or skill or aesthetic, but by the traditional symbols of those two fraternities.
A quilt appliqued with 25 different Freemason images, is perhaps the capstone of the exhibition. Handcrafted squares depict symbols like the all-seeing eye, the letter G for both God and geometry, the square and compass, a beehive, and the brotherhood of the blade. Not only that, but notes kept with the quilt record its maker and its owners over the years.
While the Freemasons are generally seen as a benign social club and the Odd Fellows Hall is where your grandfather goes to play cards with his war buddies, theories of conspiracy and power continue to surround both groups.
Fifteen presidents have been known to be Masons, as was Winston Churchill. Five presidents have been Odd Fellows. So it’s easy to see where the rumors come from. The truth may be located somewhere in the symbols on display.
Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art From the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, runs through May 8th at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square at West 66th Street, Manhattan. Admission is free to all.