Celebrated Collection Comes to Longwood:
The William and Ann Oppenhimer Collection of Folk Art
Read story about the gift.
Read interview with William and Ann Oppenhimer.
In 1983, William (Boo) and Ann Oppenhimer heard that Howard Finster had been invited to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Years earlier, Finster, a Baptist preacher in Georgia, had left his pulpit for his paintbrush, accepting a new calling to “paint sacred art.” In response to this call, Finster would create nearly 50,000 works – what he called “messages from God” – made out of materials at hand, whether plywood, Plexiglas, or empty turpentine cans, each painted to feature contemporary and biblical scenes, often annotated with scriptures and spiritual admonitions.
By the early ‘80s, Finster’s work began to garner regional and even national acclaim. Ann Oppenhimer recalls, “When we found out that Howard was going to appear on Johnny Carson, Boo said, ‘We’d better buy what we can now before he gets famous on TV.’ So we went to see him and bought fifty pieces of art. Many of them were quite small, but all the same, we often say that it changed our lives.”
From that beginning, the Oppenhimers kept building, amassing one of the more important folk art collections in the country and founding the Folk Art Society of America. This year, the Oppenhimers have given and promised part of that renowned collection to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, along with generous financial resources in support of the gift. In 2006, the Oppenhimers gave 42 works of folk art to the LCVA, and approximately 100 works in 2007. They plan to add to the donation each year.
The Oppenhimers’ collection of work by folk, or self-taught, artists has traveled the country in exhibitions such as Point of View and Personal Preferences (both featuring American folk art)and The Inner Eye (featuring folk art of India). The Oppenhimers’ collection has been shown at the LCVA and at other museums in Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Ann’s slides of Finster’s Paradise Garden are in the collection of the Archives of American Art.
The Oppenhimers’ collection is largely contemporary, primarily composed of works made from 1977 to the present, but there are a few older pieces, including one artwork made circa 1900. The gift to the LCVA includes works on paper, such as several serigraphs by the late Finster. The LCVA has also received sculptural works such as Abraham Lincoln Criss’ 1988 Rooster with Red Wattles, made of carved wood, marbles and other materials at hand, and paintings such as Minnie Adkins’ 1989 Desert Scene, which is acrylic on cardboard with a corncob frame, or Anderson Johnson’s 1990 Russian Woman, done with housepaint on a Formica kitchen countertop.
As folk art collectors, the Oppenhimers have personally met many of the artists whose works they collect. They regularly visited artists at their homes, including Finster at his Paradise Garden near Summerville, Georgia, and James Harold Jennings, who lived and worked in five school buses in the town of Pinnacle, North Carolina. The Oppenhimers began collecting folk art after visiting artist Miles Carpenter in Waverly, Virginia. Mrs. Oppenhimer explains, “I discovered a wonderful person creating wonderful art, and this was the beginning of many visits to meet other artists and to see the art we came to know as folk art.”
In 1987, the Oppenhimers created the Folk Art Society of America, which publishes an award-winning magazine, the Folk Art Messenger. The Society celebrated its twentieth anniversary at its annual meeting last year in Louisville, Kentucky. More information about FASA may be found on the group’s web site at: www.folkart.org.
LCVA Director Johnson Bowles commented, “This gift is a magnificent addition to the LCVA’s collection. It represents the major contributors to the vibrant American folk art movement, including several nationally known Virginia artists. In addition, while much of the work embraces the unique perspective of folk artists as ‘outsiders’ to the art community, other works in the collection really build bridges between the folk artists and broader art traditions.”
Bowles continued: “Aside from its importance in our collection, what I personally love about folk art is that it is fun and joyful. Its references to popular culture make it accessible to anyone, and when people look at folk art they feel good, with smiles on their faces. As an artist, I find it inspiring to think of people who feel driven to make art out of any materials they have at their disposal.”
The LCVA’s Beth Cheuk spoke with the Oppenhimers about their gift.
LCVA: When did you start collecting folk art?
Ann: I started back in 1975 when I bought several Miles Carpenter pieces. He lived just about forty-five minutes away in Waverly, Virginia, so occasionally some friends and I would go have a picnic with him. He was a dear old man. But it wasn’t until Boo and I got married in 1981 that we really started collecting folk art.
Boo: In addition to the Carpenter pieces, Ann had bought a piece by Howard Finster. We tried to get his agent to give us his telephone number and address so we could get in touch with him, but he never would. When we got married and were moving Ann’s art around, we noticed that on the back of the painting, Howard had written what he called his “Earth Phone,” so we were able to track him down and bought more of his art.
In 1984, we decided to bring Howard Finster to the University of Richmond and put on a show of his art. We borrowed art from all over the country, and in the process Ann made pretty good contacts with other collectors of folk art and museum professionals and academics who were interested in it. That was the beginning of the Folk Art Society of America. We had a meeting of about fifteen people in our living room to form a little society. At the beginning of the evening, we called it the Folk Art Society of Richmond, and then an hour or so later, we expanded it to the Folk Art Society of Virginia.
Ann: Then a few minutes later, Boo said, “We might as well go national.” So we did! We chose the name Folk Art Society of America particularly, so that the group would express interest in all folk art, not just American folk art.
LCVA: Folk art is colorful and filled with life – do the artists’ personalities match up?
Ann: The artists are certainly interesting characters, and it’s been fun to meet so many of them and visit them. Many of the old-time folk artists didn’t go to school long. A lot of them can’t read or write, but are still quite intelligent. Howard Finster only went through sixth grade but was still a brilliant person.
Boo: We noticed that a lot of the folk artists were dyslexic, which of course is part of why they couldn’t read or write. But they found art and its symbols as a different form of expression. Abe Criss, who grew up in Cumberland, near Farmville, only attended a few days of kindergarten. That was his formal education. Yet he could philosophize and talk on any level. We put together a folk art show that featured his work alongside Tom Gordon’s. Gordon was a lawyer and a Virginia Supreme Court justice. Yet the two of them talked together about all sorts of topics. Abe could hold his own with anyone.
LCVA: Do you encounter people who feel that folk art is amateur or inferior?
Boo: Especially in the beginning, we would have people walk into our house and look around and say “Where’d you get all this stuff?”
Ann: Or they’d ask, “Did you make all this?” But now people know about the art and come to the house to see it.
Boo: A number of our friends have taken to collecting it, as well – because they’ve seen and enjoyed this stuff.
Ann: Certainly some fine arts museums still think this is “unfine” art. But other museums have become interested and are playing catch-up – however, now the cost is probably prohibitive.
Boo: Museums that collect folk art find that it attracts a big and diverse audience. It’s accessible to a lot of people.
Ann: At the exhibition of our collection in Richmond, one of the pieces featured a life-size lynx from New Mexico. A friend told me that he had brought his two-year-old grandson to the exhibition, and when he saw the lynx, he began clapping his hands and cried out, “Cat! Cat!” That’s one of the marvelous things about folk art – even a two-year-old baby can enjoy it and respond to it.
LCVA: Tell us a little about how you collected the art.
Ann: In 1990, we took our van on an 11,000-mile trip for two months and camped in a tent. We got to meet so many artists that we had learned about through FASA.
Boo: By the end of the trip, we had packed our van to the top with art. Ann said, “You can’t fit any more in there,” but I found a tree I really liked, a bird tree by John Gilley. So we unloaded everything in a parking lot and repacked. I took it on as a challenge. And Ann has loved that tree ever since.
LCVA: What changes have you seen in folk art over the years?
Ann: Well, for one thing, the old-timers are dying off. Many were already in their 80s and 90s when we met them. That generation of folk artists seemed to live a long time. Many of them lived in isolation, scraping out an existence on farms and in hollers and never leaving home much. Their admirers would go to see them and buy their art. That’s the way they lived and worked then. For instance, Jimmy Lee Sudduth died recently – he was almost 100. He painted with his fingers, using mud, sugar, grass, vegetables for dyes. When you’d visit him, he’d play on his harmonica and joke with visitors.
Boo: We bought one of his pieces on that cross-country trip, painted in dirt on plywood. We thought all that rattling around in the van would shake the dirt off, and we’d get home to find a piece of plywood and a bunch of dirt in the bottom of the van.
Ann: But he’d used sugar and molasses as a bonding agent, and it came home in perfect shape. Today the line between folk art and contemporary art is blurring. Modern folk artists use the same top-of-the line materials as conventional artists, and turn to web sites and magazines to promote themselves just like any other artist. You still run across old-style folk art, but the real old-timers have passed on. It’s the end of an era.
LCVA: Why did you think the LCVA was a good choice for the pieces you’ve given?
Boo: I was on the Board at the LCVA maybe ten years ago, and I liked the direction it was going. I thought it was up and coming and receptive, with an eclectic collection.
Ann: Also, we’re so impressed that Longwood wants to make use of its art and place it where students and others will see it, not just put it in storage. Longwood thinks it’s important that art is part of students’ everyday lives, a part of their education. In addition, we think the LCVA’s outreach to the surrounding counties in Southside Virginia is so important.
LCVA: Are you still collecting?
Ann: We just got back from conducting the national folk art conference in Louisville, and we did manage to buy a few things, though we didn’t mean to! And we’re heading to a folk art conference in India, so I’m sure we’ll buy some there.
Boo: No doubt.
The LCVA is located at 129 North Main Street in Farmville. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call 434-395-2206 or visit www.longwood.edu/lcva.
For more information, please contact:
Beth Cheuk, PR & Events Coordinator
cheukbl at longwood.edu