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Spring 2008

A Magnificent Gift

Oppenhimers Donate Major Folk Art Collection to Longwood and the LCVA

Beth Cheuk
LCVA Public Relations and Events Coordinator

William & Ann Oppenhimer Dr. William Mayo and Ann Frederick 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 and 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 50 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 (FASA).
This year, the Oppenhimers have given and promised part of that renowned collection to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts (LCVA), 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.

"Mr. Coke" by Howard Finster Howard Finster's Mr. Coke, 1989, enamel paint and marker on plywood
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, Ga., and James Harold Jennings, who lived and worked in five school buses in the town of Pinnacle, N.C. The Oppenhimers began collecting folk art after visiting artist Miles Carpenter in Waverly, Va. 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 20th anniversary at its annual meeting last year in Louisville, Ky. 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."

Editor’s Note: An interview in which the Oppenhimers discuss their collection is available online in the "news" section of the LCVA’s web site at: www.longwood.edu/lcva.