I can start treating people for real," said Minnie Adkins during a
recent conversation at Kentucky Folk Art Center.
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.
Adkins, 1998, by David Levinson
Roosters," 1989, by Minnie Adkins. Photograph courtesy
Kentucky Folk Art Center
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
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.
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
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.
You Know Minnie and Garland is on the Radio?" 1995, by
Minnie Adkins. Photograph courtesy Kentucky Folk Art Center.
"Fox," 1985, by Minnie Adkins. Photograph courtesy
Kentucky Folk Art Center
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.
further explains an excerpt from a 1990 videotape made by Morehead State
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,
Garland: "Everyone to their own notion."
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
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.
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
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.
latest Minnie Adkins product is a beautiful, commercially woven coverlet,
complete with roosters and other creatures.
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.
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.
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.
Kentucky Folk Art Center, Morehead State
This article previously appeared in the
Folk Art Messenger, Vol. 12., No. 1, Winter 1999, and is reprinted here