At age 81, renowned folk artist Minnie Adkins is busier than ever

May 9, 2015
Folk artist Minnie Adkins, 81, in her "museum" building beside her home in Elliott County.  Photos by Tom Eblen

Folk artist Minnie Adkins, 81, in her “museum” building in Elliott County. Photos by Tom Eblen


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.

Adkins carved Bright Blue Rooster for a children's book she did with writer and folksinger Mike Norris.

Adkins carved Bright Blue Rooster for a children’s book she did with Mike Norris.

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.”

One of folk artist Minnie Adkins' biggest pieces has been this Noah's Ark set, which she sold years ago and recently bought back.

One of Adkins’ biggest pieces was Noah’s Ark, which she sold years ago and has bought back.

Buying ‘artistic experience’ rather than just art

February 19, 2011

Art in Bloom, the annual fund-raiser for The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, is trying something new with its silent auction. Rather than buying work by local artists, patrons will bid on chances to experience their art with them.

Winning bidders at Art in Bloom should like this approach — almost as much as the artists do.

For example, Helene Steene is offering a winning bidder and as many as five of his or her friends the chance to spend an afternoon in her Loudoun House studio, learning her painting techniques and using them to create their own art.

Another winning bidder will get to bring as many as 20 people on a private tour of Stephen Rolfe Powell‘s new hot-glass studio in Danville. They also will see a demonstration of Powell’s work, which has brought him international acclaim.

Painting lessons with Mary Ann McKee are up for auction, as is a drawing class with Anne Wehrley Bjork. A winning bidder and as many as four friends will get to spend an afternoon with John Lackey at his Homegrown Press studio in the renovated old Spalding’s Bakery building. Lackey will show how he makes woodblock prints, and he’ll give them each one to take home.

Weaver Philis Alvic and mixed media glass artist Dan Neil Barnes are offering a private tour of their studios for as many as four people. The tour comes with a $150 gift certificate for dinner at Nick Ryan’s. Many of the other experiences also include food or refreshments from restaurants, including Stella’s Kentucky Deli, Flag Fork Farm and the Mousetrap.

Other auction items include a private tour for as many as four people at the Folk Art Center in Morehead and a visit with famous folk artist Minnie Adkins at her home in Elliott County.

Susan Goldstein and Jim Wenneker will invite winning bidders to see art collections in their homes. Ed and Kay Thomas are offering a tour of their beautifully restored 1792 home in Bourbon County; lunch is included. Additional auction offerings are still coming in.

“We thought this would be a fresh approach,” said Marsha Bloxsom, chair of Art in Bloom’s auction committee.

Patrons who attend fund-raisers such as Art in Bloom love art, but they don’t always need more of it for their homes.

“How much better it could be to have a shared experience with friends,” she said. “There are people who are interested in the process as much as the art itself.”

Besides, Bloxsom said, this approach is fairer to local artists, who often struggle to support themselves financially while doing the work they love.

“When they donate something, it’s a piece they could have sold,” she said. “It’s money out of their pocket. And when it sometimes goes for little at an auction, it is almost insulting.”

Some local non-profit groups split auction proceeds with artists, but others simply ask for donations. Artists can’t even get much of a tax benefit, because they can deduct only the cost of materials, not their time. Bottom line: Artists can be reluctant to donate their best work.

“I think it’s good exposure for the artists to do it this way,” said Steene, who in addition to being a professional artist is a volunteer docent at the museum and a member of Art in Bloom’s auction committee.

“Visiting a studio can be an eye-opener,” said Steene, who uses pure pigments, marble dust and other substances to create abstract paintings with multiple layers of complex colors and textures. “I’m going to reveal some of my techniques and let people try them to create their own art.”

Steene, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, who has lived here since 1987, said she is amazed at the flowering of Lexington’s art community in just the past five or six years. This fund-raising approach allows artists to showcase not only their work but their passion in ways that could lead more people to buy original art — or try creating it themselves.

“I think people would enjoy art more if we took some of the mystery out of it,” she said. “This way, they can come into our world and see what it’s like.”

  • If you go

    Art in Bloom

    When: noon-5 p.m. Feb. 25-27

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Admission: $5


    Related events at Singletary Center:

    ■ An Evening of Elegance. Black-tie gala. 7 p.m. Feb. 25. $500-$10,000.

    ■ A Night on the Town. Cocktails, auction. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26. $75, $100.

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