BUTLER INSTITUTE Local exhibit shows insight into lives of area Amish

The photographer has been taking pictures of the Amish for years.
YOUNGSTOWN -- On display through Sept. 30 at the Butler Institute of American Art is an exhibition of 30 color and black-and-white works by longtime Valley artist and Vindicator correspondent Michael J. LaCivita. Titled "Amish Country -- Gentle Giants and More," the show offers insights into a wide swath of Amish life -- work, play, even a seldom-seen Amish funeral procession.
LaCivita has been actively chronicling Amish life since his retirement in 1989, and has produced more than 4,000 images, having also enlarged more than 400 to an 8x10 format. He has come to know several of the Amish farmers personally, and is aware and respectful of their proclivity against being photographed.
"I shoot out of respect for them," LaCivita says. "I shoot from a distance and from behind and try not to shoot their faces. To them, it's a graven image -- they don't want to appear above God. It's their custom, their religion."
The great majority of works in the show are from the New Wilmington, Pa., region, though LaCivita has also photographed the Amish of Holmes County, the Middlefield area and Lancaster, Pa.
A big theme
Amish farm work is a major LaCivita theme. "I know the seasons of their work," the artist states. From planting season to harvesting, LaCivita has both the patience and the trained eye to capture the interesting moment. One amusing image shows an Amish farmer, high atop a wagon stacked high with hay bales, nearly falling off his lofty perch as he attempts to negotiate a tight turn.
Horses play an important role in the exhibition -- especially draft horses, the "Gentle Giants" referred to in the show's title. One photograph depicts eight draft horses lined up along a road and peering at the camera, more resembling an agrarian chorus line than the mainstays of the Amish farm. This is a rare staged photograph, as seldom does an Amish farmer possess eight draft horses. One Amish friend of LaCivita's owns six of the horses in the image; the other two were borrowed from a neighboring farmer to round out the cast.
One somber winter scene depicts a mournful procession of 25 Amish buggies, following the course of a bend in the road, en route to the internment of a community member. The bleakness of the winter sky mirrors the duty at hand.
Children abound
Amish children are a recurring LaCivita theme. One memorable image -- reproduced and sold as postcards and magnets -- depicts two barefoot Amish boys on their way to school, their lunch boxes dangling at their side. Amish children appear to be much less averse to being photographed than their adult counterparts. More than once in this show will you view an image only to find an Amish youth peering out from behind a cow or wagon and smiling broadly.
Though he has photographed the Amish consistently, LaCivita senses he has hardly scratched the surface of the imagery available to him. "All the years I've been doing this, I'm always getting something new," he said. "You never know what you're going to find."
The exhibition is dedicated to the artist's recently deceased wife, Margaret LaCivita.