ISONVILLE — Minnie Adkins turned 81 in March, nine months after her second husband died. At a point in life when most people would be slowing down, the renowned Elliott County folk artist is busier than ever.
Adkins spent the long, snowy winter whittling and painting. Her work included 11 identical statues that will be presented next year to winners of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts, which she won in 1998.
She also made dozens of colorfully painted horses, pigs, possums, foxes and roosters — especially roosters. When I visited her last week, Adkins had a table filled with roosters, each whittled from a tree limb fork.
“As you can see, I ain’t lackin’ for roosters,” she said with a wry smile. “I never do have arthritis in my hands and I’ve whittled and whittled.”
Adkins will be in Lexington on Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for Gallery Hop at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 West Second Street.
She will be showing a range of her life’s work, including dozens of figures she made for photographs in three children’s books she has done with writer and folksinger Mike Norris of Danville: Bright Blue Rooster (1997), Sonny the Monkey (2012) and Mommy Goose, which the University Press of Kentucky will publish next year.
After Gallery Hop, Adkins will get ready for the Day in the Country Folk Art Fair on June 6. Adkins started the fair at her home years ago, but it became so popular the Kentucky Folk Art Center moved it to Morehead. It is now one of America’s largest folk art fairs, with more than 50 artists from 10 states.
Then, on July 18, Elliott County will put on its second annual Minnie Adkins Day in Sandy Hook with art, crafts, food and music.
“We have a really good time at Minnie Day,” Adkins said. “Of course, I’ve just been to one Minnie Day. But it was really good.”
Adkins began whittling as a child, making toys for herself and gifts for her parents. She started selling pieces at Avon bottle shows in the early 1970s in Dayton, Ohio, where she and her first husband, Garland, had moved to find work.
“I was selling them for 50 cents or $1, and was I ever tickled when I sold a whole batch of them,” she said. “I thought I had hit the big time.”
After moving back home in 1983, she accompanied her husband to Morehead one day. While he filed for unemployment benefits, she went into a craft gallery to look around. She told the owner she made things like what he was selling, and he asked to see some of them.
Adkins has been selling work ever since with help from folk art champions such as Adrian Swain and Larry Hackley. Grandson Greg Adkins helps market her work now when he isn’t busy coaching basketball at Elliott County High School.
Adkins has been featured in several folk art books, including Ramona Lampell’s 1989 best-seller, O, Appalachia: Artists of the Southern Mountains.
“That’s really what got me recognized,” Adkins said. “People began to come here, folk art collectors from all over the country, to find me.”
Her work is in dozens of private collections and several museums, including the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and New York City’s American Folk Art Museum. In Lexington, her work is sold at Ann Tower Gallery and Clark Art & Antiques.
Garland Adkins helped whittle until his death in 1997. Three years later, she married Herman Peters, a metal worker who made steel sculptures of her figures. He died last June.
Adkins lives on more than 100 acres along Right Fork Newcombe Creek, which she calls Peaceful Valley, within sight of her childhood farmhouse.
She often whittles in the easy chair in her living room, where the walls are filled with awards, including an honorary doctorate from Morehead State University, and pictures of her family, which includes a son, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Adkins has no idea how many pieces she has made: “It would be wild to even think.”
She has a workshop in her barn, as well as a little museum. In recent years, she has bought back many of her early pieces — or been given them by collectors and their families who have become friends.
Some of her biggest pieces portray Bible stories, such as Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Adam and Eve. She also has done paintings, quilts and painted furniture. But her favorite things to make are whimsical animals.
“We always had all kinds of animals on the farm,” she said. “After I got to making pigs and horses and roosters, then I went into foxes and bears.”
Some of Adkins’ animals defy description, such as one she bought back from a collector a few years ago.
“The woman said when she come to my house I was whittling on this and she said, ‘What is that?'” Adkins recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know what it is and I don’t know who I’m making it for,’ so I called it a Who What.”