Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

The work of Jack Savitsky (1910-1991) is highly prized by aficionados of twentieth century folk art. A native of Schuylkill County, Savitsky drew the subject matter for his art from his own experience as a hard coal miner in north­eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, as well as from the area’s miners and mining villages. Interestingly enough, his paintings and drawings depict a world of primary colors that is far different from the bleak landscape that is often associated with mining regions. In fact, admirers – many of them serious collectors – have labeled Jack Savitsky as “America’s first primitive pop artist” because of his use of vivid colors.

Savitsky began painting in 1959 after he retired from mining in Lansford, Carbon County, where he had lived for several decades. In the early years he and his wife traveled to outdoor art shows, selling some of his paintings for a dollar or two apiece. In 1970, he sold one of his paintings of a train to a friend who, in turn, sold it to collector Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr. Hailed by Savitsky as “the painting that made me famous,” Train in Coal Town traveled throughout the world as part of Hemphill’s extensive collection and appeared in countless publications.

Savitsky’s reputation grew and his work was aggressively acquired by a number of prestigious institutions, such as the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia, and featured in numerous exhibitions, including those mounted by New York’s Museum of American Folk Art More than fifty of his pieces were shown in 1973 at Harrisburg’s William Penn Memorial Museum (now The State Museum of Pennsylvania) in an exhi­bition entitled “Five Self-­Taught Artists,” which also showcased the work of his friend and fellow folk art painter Sterling Strauser of East Stroudsburg. Train in Coal Town appeared as the col­orful cover illustration for Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists, written by Hemphill and Julia Weissman, and published by E. P. Dutton and Company in 1974. In 1993, the artist’s son and daughter­-in-law, John P. and Mary Louise Savitt, of Macungie, Lehigh County, donated a rare sketchbook containing thirty draw­ings by Jack Savitsky to The State Museum. The sketchbook includes the artist’s distinctive depictions of life in the anthracite region, in addition to amusing drawings that have an almost fairy tale-like quality.