Thrown Stone commissions show on 'visionary' Conn. folk artist Ammi Phillips

Thrown Stone Theatre Company commissioned playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger to pen a new play on the life and legacy of Connecticut-born Ammi Phillips, a prolific American itinerant portrait painter active from the mid-1810s to the early 1860s.

The painter, who worked as a traveling portrait painter throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, is most famous for his “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog.”

Goldfinger last worked with Thrown Stone on her play, “The Arsonists” in 2018. Over her career, she has had work commissioned by such institutions as The Arden Theater, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Florida Studio Theater.

“We had a fantastic collaboration with that play, and they asked me at that point if I would be willing to collaborate with them in the future on an original piece, and of course I was interested,” Goldfinger said. “We all wanted to work together again, so it was a matter of finding the right piece that we could all do well.”

Jonathan Winn, co-artistic director of Thrown Stone, first learned about Phillips on Davis Dunavin’s “Off The Path” podcast and was intrigued by the notion that the folk painter rarely signed his own work. In fact, out of the more than 800 paintings that art historians attribute to Phillips, only 11 are signed.

“When Jonathan sent this idea to all of us, we were all as excited and engaged as he was,” Goldfinger said. “That was about a year ago.”

Winn noted that Goldfinger was asked to do the story as the theatre was moved by her ability to create complex tapestries of the American experience, evident in her work such as “The Arsonists” and the Yale Award-winning “Bottle Fly.”

Not surprisingly, Goldfinger had not heard of Phillips prior to listening to the podcast.

“I grew up in North Florida and my parents are amateur folklorists, but primarily, I have worked on folklore projects related to the South, because that’s where I’m from,” she said. “To find this incredible folk artist in basically my own backyard of my home was incredibly exciting.”

Thrown Stone is partnering with a number of artistic and folk history organizations on the project and Goldfinger has already started to do research on Phillips. For instance, she’s getting a lot of input from the American Folk Art Museum, whose collection includes several works by Phillips.

“What we’re working on is getting all these little bits of knowledge about Ammi Phillips’ life, work and philosophy and putting it all together to reflect stories that reflect his experience but also acknowledge how his lens was very narrow and excluded the experience of many types of Americans,” Goldfinger said. “We will look also at the people he excluded at the time, like the slaves and indigenous folks, to get the full quilt, that when brought together, will be a beautiful whole that reflects the wholeness of society at the time.”

This play is Goldfinger’s first historical drama based on an actual person, though she’s written things based on historical times, just not individuals.

“That makes this really exciting as well,” she said. “I love the idea of writing about someone who really lived and lived during an incredible time in American history, between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, when the foundations of America were really being set.”

As anyone who has seen “Hamilton” knows, historical shows do not need to be 100 percent true, and as a playwright, Goldfinger has some liberties with the story.

“We have a lot of conversations about what needs to stay fact and needs to be represented 100 percent accurately, and what we can be flexible with,” she said. “Because he was a folk artist, folk art by nature was not very well documented, so we have to fill in the blanks a lot because the documentation just isn’t there. That’s a perfect thing for a dramatist and playwright because I understand how to meld the fact and fiction to come up with a compelling story.”

The goal is to represent Phillips and his works correctly but also add in the idea of those he didn’t paint.

“At the time, he was considered visionary and started painting portraits for those who were not uber-wealthy,” Goldfinger said. “They were probably still upper class, but in his time, he was taking portraiture to a new community. That was a step forward. But he didn’t take the next step of painting the poor. But because those people are a huge part of Connecticut, we want to make sure those stories are represented.”

That doesn’t mean she’ll say that he painted those groups — because he didn’t — but Goldfinger will answer the question as to why they weren’t painted, and that’s where more of her creative side will take root in the script.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, work on the play won’t begin until January, with workshops and public readings expected by October 2021 in collaboration with the Ridgefield Library, Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, Ridgefield Historical Society, Kent Historical Society, and other local organizations.

“I’m hoping this fall, it will be safe enough to go to other museums and have in-person conversations with other historians and folk artists,” Goldfinger said. “If not, I’ll be doing it all over Skype or Zoom. The idea is to finish the research this fall so I can begin writing this winter.”