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Kuhn, Edward, 202nd New York Infantry

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Edward C. Kuhn: Master Sergeant and Master Embroidery
By Susan Mol

Master Sergeant and Master Embroiderer are not descriptive terms one would presume to belong to the same individual. Yet Edward C. Kuhn was indeed an Army sergeant and a gifted artist who rendered designs of complicated coats of arms and military insignia in watercolors, oils and pastels - and with a needle and thread. During the early 1900's Master Sergeant Kuhn served as the official artist for the United States Army. A number of his paintings are included in the permanent collections of the White House, U.S. Naval Academy Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. But perhaps one of Kuhn's greatest works of art is a massive silk embroidery of the coat of arms of the United States that he stitched in his spare time over a period fourteen years.

Edward Kuhn was a man of many contradictions. He fought as well as he painted and stitched. A true military man who served thirty years in posts located in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Philippines, Japan and the United States he is know to have charged an enemy dugout amid a rain of shell fire. Yet at each of the places he was stationed he found inspiration to paint the changing land and marine scenes in which he was situated. He is remembered as a soft-spoken man of culture and intellect. When dressed in his "civies" he could have passed as a college professor yet when tormented by his comrades for his artistic endeavors he at times had to prove his mettle with his fists. The life story of Edward Kuhn reveals a man of grit and determination whose devotion to the dream of becoming an artist led him down some interesting and unexpected paths to success.

Born in1872 in Martinsville, New York (now part of North Towanda, NY) Kuhn was the oldest of eleven children. His first job was that of a laborer in a sawmill owned by his grandfather, where he worked ten hour days feeding huge logs into saw blades of steel. But when the whistle blew at 6 pm Kuhn's day had just begun. Motivated by the dream of becoming a professional painter he would rush home from work, change clothes, eat dinner, and race to the train station to make the fourteen mile trip to Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery where he attended art school. The returning train did not stop at his home village so he had to walk five miles from a neighboring junction. Five nights a week he would crawl into bed at 1 am and rise again at 7am to begin a new day at the sawmill.

At the outbreak of the Spanish American War Kuhn enlisted in the New York Volunteers and thus began a long and successful career in the military. After the war he joined the Army's Coastal Artillery. The Army routinely moved detachments to different posts. At each new post where Kuhn was assigned he would locate a local art school or commercial artist that could help further his artistic training. While stationed in New York he studied under the direction of George De Forest Brush, one of America's modern masters. In New York his company captain became interested in Kuhn's painting skills and commissioned him to design an appropriate coat of arms and insignia for the company and then for the regiment. These assignments piqued his interest in heraldry and he began studying flags, escutcheons, crests and coats of arms. He eventually became the leading expert in the US of heraldry and flags of all creation. During his time of heraldry study he created approximately 150 remarkable drawings depicting the history and evolution of flags from the time of the Vikings to his present time.

Like most soldiers, Kuhn learned how to sew out of necessity. Adept with the needle and thread he eventually became interested in embroidery as a medium for rendering his artistic heraldic designs and thus the idea for an embroidered tapestry of the American coat of arms was conceived.

Kuhn's first thought was to use silk as his ground fabric but soon realized that the cost of silk - more than his pay of three months salary - was prohibitive. The cost constraints led to the decision to work his design on a thirty-nine square foot piece of ordinary sheeting fabric. He began by embroidering a backgound field in different shades of white silk with long and short stitches creating a satin effect. This was no small task as the background field measured four and a half by five feet. Four hours of embroidery would result in a strip a quarter of an inch wide across the width of the banner.

After the silken backgound field was completed Kuhn sketched the coat of arms design directly onto the silk. The design is of an eagle in flight, wings outstretched with a cloudburst and thirteen stars overhead. The claws of the eagles left foot clutch thirteen arrows; the claws of the right foot clutch an olive branch. A purple banner bearing the Latin words "E Pluribus Unum" is outstretched behind the great eagle. Kuhn devoted whatever spare time he had during the next fourteen years to the work of embroidering this impressive tapestry. He used over eight hundred skeins of silk in every color available to him at a total cost of $40.

Originally Kuhn had embroidered a border of thirty four flags, seven and a half by ten inches in size, which told the story pictorially of the evolution of the flag. After it was completed he decided he did not like the border and replaced it with the tapestry fabric that currently borders the work. After fourteen years of stitching he completed the tapestry at nine o'clock one evening. Unwilling to entrust the task of cleaning the tapestry to anyone else he immediately kindled the fire in his barracks, heated the water and placed a couple of flatirons on the stove. By two in the morning his masterpiece was complete.

Master Sergeant Edward C. Kuhn made significant contributions to American military art, heraldry, and history and he used his artistic gifts to paint, draw and embroider significant works that will be admired for generations to come. Kuhn died at the age of seventy-six in 1948 after a long illness. He was survived by Julia, his wife of thirty-nine years. A veteran of two wars, the Spanish American War and World War I, Kuhn served for thirty years with the Coast Artillery, United States Army. He is buried in the St. Paul Lutheran Cemetery in Martinsville, Niagara County, New York.

In recent years the tapestry has been in the care of Kuhn's great nephew Jeffrey Krull, retired director of the Allen County Public Library system. Krull is in the process of trying of find a permanent home for the tapestry. The tapestry will be featured in the exhibition, A Heritage of Needle Art, sponsored by the Fort Wayne Area Embroiderers' Guild of America at the Jeffrey R Krull Gallery of the Allen County Public Library. The six week exhibit will run from Aug 21 to October 2 and, in addition to the tapestry, will display a sampling of needle art on loan from the Embroiderer's Guild of America's Permanent Collection in Louisville, KY. This exhibition will feature both historical and contemporary works of needle art from all over the world that honor and represent embroidery as timeless, artistic expressions of cultures and traditions. It is most appropriate that Kuhn's magnificently embroidered tapestry will hang with a collection of embroidered works that embody the tradition of embroidery as a timeless and enduring expression of art.


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