Article by Adrian Swain
“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 than its value as an object for sale. It was Minnie’s success in the marketplace that prompted him to try his own hand ù resulting in those magnificent, timeless horses which were quickly in demand from collectors and came to be the logo of the Kentucky Folk Art Center.
This further explains an excerpt from a 1990 videotape made by Morehead State University:
Minnie: “I love all the attention I get from this [work].”
Garland: “Naaa…., the attention it don’t….”
Minnie: “I enjoy the attention as much as he does the money! I do, and we all require so much attention.”
Garland: “Don’t look at me when you say that.”
Minnie: “Oh, yes, you do, and you won’t admit it, but you do really, deep down.”
Garland: “Everyone to their own notion.”
Throughout her first 12 years as an artist, Garland — her husband, her helpmate, her pal — worked alongside her, and Minnie always attributed her success to their collaboration. When Garland died on November 6, 1997, Minnie said she would never again take up a knife to carve.
But, as activity, like time, can help soften pain and distract from grief, she began working again in 1998, finding it a lonely proposition but one that, in a sense, helps to keep Garland’s memory alive.
Against all expectations, this past June Minnie again hosted the “Day in the Country,” a gathering of folk artists, collectors and anyone else determined enough to make the precipitous, ridge-top drive to Isonville. Going it alone, she kept alive a folk art happening that had been evolving since the spring of 1987, when the Adkinses hosted an eight-person picnic that included Museum of American Folk Art (then Assistant) Director Gerry Wertkin.
Minnie’s recognition has come in part from her own work and in part from her activities championing the artistic abilities of others. Many other regional folk artists, including Tim Lewis, Linvel Barker and Jimmy Lewis, point to Minnie as the pivotal source of encouragement for their work and of introductions to the flow of collectors visiting Isonville.
Minnie’s art has extended well beyond wood sculpture to include paintings and, recently, collaboration on ceramic platters with her artist-cousin, Tess Little. Other collaborations include quilts made locally and limited-edition or one-of-a kind blown-glass vases, all decorated with her animal designs.
In 1998, she and musician Mike Norris produced the highly successful children’s book and cassette, Bright Blue Rooster. She and Norris have traveled the state to demonstrate folk carving and entertain schoolchildren and other groups.The latest Minnie Adkins product is a beautiful, commercially woven coverlet, complete with roosters and other creatures.
Actions begat fame which led to awards and acknowledgment from many quarters: the first Jane Morton Norton Award from Centre College in Danville, Ky., in 1992; the Award for Leadership in Arts and Culture, Eastern Kentucky Leadership Foundation, in 1993; the Distinguished Artist Award, Folk Art Society of America, in 1993; an Al Smith Fellowship for Individual Artists, Kentucky Arts Council, in 1993; a Certificate of Merit for Program Presentation, Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association, in 1993; and the Appalachian Treasure Award from Morehead State University, in 1994. In January 1998, Kentucky Governor Paul Patton presented to Minnie the prestigious Individual Artist Award of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts in recognition of her contributions to art and artists.
And so, back to what Minnie referred to as “the doctor thing.” On December 12, 1998, during fall commencement exercises at Morehead State University, Minnie Adkins and Garland (posthumously) received doctor of humanities degrees — significant honors from an institution dedicated to higher learning. In awarding these doctorates, the university acknowledged the unusual contributions of one living, self-taught artist and her late husband. In so doing, Morehead State implicitly recognized the different ways of knowing, which sometimes can come only through a non-academic learning process, and so honored a host of other self-taught artists at the same time.
There have been, and still are, many other gifted, self-taught artists in Kentucky. But once in a long while someone comes along who serves as a lightning rod for what’s going on in relation to developments elsewhere in the country. For better or worse — and she never went looking for it — Minnie Adkins continues to be that lightning rod, and, so far, she hasn’t been burned too badly.
So next time you call or visit her, remember to address her with respect — Dr. Adkins, that is.
ADRIAN SWAIN is the former Curator at the Kentucky Folk Art Center, Morehead State University.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: