"Now I can start treating people for real," said Minnie Adkins during a recent conversation at Kentucky Folk Art Center.
The fact is that Minnie's been treating people for years: treating them with hospitality, with native home-truths; treating them by repeating pieces she'd made many times before because they wanted one; treating the world to her whimsical, tongue-in-cheek animal forms, pumping out those improbable roosters. Treating them because she likes to please, because when they visit she likes them to leave with a good taste in their mouths, a little wiser, a little lighter for the experience. But she meant treat like a doctor -- one more piece of irony for the road.
Life unfolds according to no apparent plan. She was born Minnie Evon Wooldridge, on March 13, 1934. You could see the home place from her present house if the tobacco barn weren't in the way. She was a farm girl, but her father also operated a sawmill and dug coal through a narrow tunnel on a nearby hillside. She grew up and got married to Garland Adkins on June 11, 1952. For many years she and Garland lived in Dayton, Ohio, one of the destinations rural Kentuckians flocked to for better-paying factory jobs.
As a small child she was intrigued by the whittling she saw men doing, so her father gave her a pocketknife, and she soon ventured into distinctly unladylike territory.
Recently, she and I held court together for a day, talking to fourth-, fifth- and sixth- graders on Arts and Humanities Day at Sandy Hook Elementary School. "I started out making slingshots," she said. "Well, you can take the same type forked stick and make a rooster out of it, and then you've got something."
For many years, she continued making roosters, birds, and other hand-size creatures, giving them away or selling them for small change. She first received notice in 1973, in Worldwide Avon Collectors Magazine: "Minnie Adkins brought Avons and handmade items" [to the Worldwide Avon Collectors Show in Dayton].
Her sculpture came to the attention of folk art collectors in 1984, when she took some pieces to a gallery in Morehead at the urging of her art-teacher niece, Sharon Sluss.
Over the next few years, her own sense of what she was doing underwent a fundamental shift, because it wasn't until then that she began to think of what she'd done all those years as making "ART." Emboldened, she made her work bigger, more adventurous, and she sold everything she could make.
Public recognition followed in landslide mode. In 1985, when Morehead State University opened its Folk Art Collection (predecessor of today's Kentucky Folk Art Center), several of Minnie's pieces were included. Larry Hackley began handling her work in the mid-'80s, and other folk art dealers soon came knocking at her door. By October 1987, she'd been chosen as one of five Kentucky artists to be featured in Millard and Ramona Lampell's book, O' Appalachia. Print journalists and television reporters began frequenting Newcombe Creek, near Isonville, where she lives. Exhibitions regularly featured her work, and many people concluded that a collection of contemporary folk art must include works by Minnie Adkins.
Minnie's pieces made before November 1997, bear the signature "G & M Adkins" because, after her work began to sell in folk art circles, her husband played an essential role in making these sculptures. Garland often roughed out a piece with power tools, and then would pass it on to her to carve and finish with a knife. Garland was a pragmatist who saw no inherent worth in the finished work other t