AUSTIN, TX — George Washington, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Winston Churchill, and Voltaire were all part of the same secret society: the Freemasons. Though masonic fraternal groups like the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows have existed for centuries, their rites and methods have long been shrouded in secrecy. Membership has historically been made up of white men, and many have held positions of significant political, cultural, and social influence. Today, there are nearly seven million Masons across the globe.

Masonic traditions have had a particularly strong impact in the United States, where members have operated since the 1700s. Several of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were one third of the country’s presidents. The group’s curious symbols also quietly pervade American daily life: the glowing eye over a pyramid on the one-dollar bill, for example, is taken from Masonic iconography. But what does it all mean, and how have these images guided group activity?

Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Gift to the American Folk Art Museum at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum offers a glimpse into the Masons’ hidden world through its ritual objects. The display includes 86 paintings, lithographs, mirrors, regalia, scepters, flags, and other props and tokens used in Masonic lodges in the US during the 19th and 20th centuries. The items, which were made by local artisans and group members in a mix of meticulous and homespun finishes, offer a valuable panorama of American folk art traditions. But the Masons’ mysterious imagery, elaborate rituals, and insistence on secrecy are explained in only vague, repetitive terms, thus leaving the viewer with questions about how and why these groups have shaped our world.

Independent Order of Odd Fellows Tracing Board (1850–1900) (image courtesy American Folk Art Museum, gift of Kendra and Allan Daniel)

With its skulls and crossbones, bows and arrows, bee hives, pillars, and scythes, Masonic iconography is visually compelling stuff. The exhibition frames these symbols as reminders of the Masons’ commitment to brotherhood, love, and community service. However, for most of their history, Masons blocked Catholics, women, and people of color, and others from joining their ranks. Some of these groups formed their own associations modeled on the Masons: a chart produced between 1850 and 1900 by the African American Grand United Order of Odd Fellows borrows many of the Masons’ symbols. The exhibition also includes a small portrait of Marie-Henriette Heiniken, who was accepted to a Masonic lodge in France after she dressed as a man to fight in the Napoleonic Wars.

Masonic traditions aren’t just the subject of the show; they’re embedded into the museum itself. Among the items on display are a Masonic cap and pin owned by Bob Bullock, the museum’s namesake and founder, who insisted on consecrating the building with a Masonic cornerstone ceremony before it opened to the public. Bullock’s effects, displayed next to a reproduction of a painting of the first US president engaged in a Masonic ritual, are reminders of the groups’ continuing power in the country, and raise questions about a group that has chosen to remain hidden in plain sight.

Bob Bullock’s Scottish Rite Cap and Pin (1981) (image courtesy Jan Felts Bullock, Austin)
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Chart (1850–1900) (image courtesy American Folk Art Museum, gift of Kendra and Allan Daniel)
Installation view, Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Gift to the American Folk Art Museum at the Bullock Texas State History Museum
Installation view, Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Gift to the American Folk Art Museum at the Bullock Texas State History Museum
Installation view, Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Gift to the American Folk Art Museum at the Bullock Texas State History Museum

Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Gift to the American Folk Art Museum continues at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Ave, Austin, TX) through March 27.

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Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.