Atlanta Life and Culture

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At 81, Minnie Adkins carves a legacy for authentic Southern folk art

The volume of art competing for attention at Folk Fest, the folk art marketplace that opens its 22nd edition Friday night at North Atlanta Trade Center, is always large and loud.

Minnie Adkins’ art speaks in more dulcet tones, yet never fails to command attention in the bustling expo center lined with row after row of booths that overflow with art boasting hypnotic patterns, rainbow hues and dense textures.

The Kentucky wood carver is a folk artist from another time, when the rural South was isolated and unplugged instead of high-speed connected.

Because she’s 81 and already planning to show at the Kentuck Festival near Tuscaloosa, Ala., in October, Adkins is waiting until late to decide if she will greet longtime collectors and new friends at Folk Fest this weekend.

But her basswood carvings of all sorts of critters — including horses and foxes, possums and bears — will be well represented by her grandson Greg Adkins in his Gizzard Holler Folk Art booth, as well as by a scattering of other dealers.

Gizzard Holler is one of her evocative names for the 175 forested acres where she lives in Isonville, Ky., that overlooks the home place where she grew up. She now prefers an older name, Peaceful Valley, for the parcel where she whiled away many childhood hours observing animals.

When she was asked over the phone last week if she was indeed having a peaceful afternoon in Peaceful Valley, her response was as warm and slow as just-cooked grits being poured out of the pot.

“Oh, yeah, it’s real peaceful out here,” she said in her sing-song-y, adding-syllables-with-abandon way. “Some day I hope you get to come out and vis-it.

Why, sure!

Her father tilled that very land as a tobacco farmer. He was a man who plied many trades, all involving hard work with his hands: sawmill operator, coal miner and oil well driller.

As a little girl, she was captivated by the whittling that local menfolk did, so her dad gave her a pocketknife, and her hands have hardly stopped carving since.

In the early 1970s in Dayton, Ohio, where she and her first husband, Garland, had moved to find work, she began selling small works at Avon bottle shows.

“I had little (twig) roosters and I was a-sellin’ em like for a dollar a piece, and now the cheapest one we have is $30,” she recalled, clearly pleased about the inflation. “Didn’t even know what folk art was back then. I had never been to museums or galleries or anything.”

A decade later, back again in the Bluegrass State, she carried some pieces to a Morehead gallery at the encouragement of an art-teacher niece.

Adkins hadn’t thought of her pocketknife-crafted works as art, but they quickly found favor with collectors, especially after she and Garland were included in the book “O, Appalachia: Artists of the Southern Mountains.”

She tried to spread the attention to other self-taught Kentucky makers, hosting annual A Day in the Country Folk Art Fairs on her property starting in 1987, until the show and sale grew so big that it had to be moved to Morehead State University.

She has received a passel of local and state recognition for her art-making and folk art ambassadorship. But when she was to be given a Governor’s Award in the Arts in 1998, just a couple of months after her husband of 46 years died, she didn’t think she could turn up to accept it.

“I just sat down and cried,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t go get it because Garland’s not here to go with me.’ And Greg said, ‘But Mamaw, you have to go get it because I’m here to go with you.’ And that done something for me because he wanted to help me so bad, and he has been a great help to me.”

Greg, a high school athletic director, chainsaws down the basswood logs that Minnie carves with her pocketknife. He also sells her work, and pieces by other Kentucky artists, at festivals and on a Gizzard Holler eBay site. (Maple roosters start at $30; basswood carvings range from $200 to $800.)

Fast-forward a decade and a half, and Minnie came full circle when she was asked several months back to create original works to be given to the next crop of Governor’s Awards in the Arts winners.

She immediately agreed, telling the official who approached her that she considered it a “great honor” given how many top-flight Kentucky artists could have been tapped. Then he informed her that creating the 11 awards (she turned out nearly identical 10-inch-tall blue roosters) carried a nice commission, too.

“I wasn’t expecting any money from it, and I got $5,500,” she recounted, then repeated the amount, still amazed. “Five thousand, 500 dollars for makin’ them roosters.

“I told him that day he picked up the roosters and he give me the check, I said, ‘Now I can go to Wal-Mart!’”

She cracked up, recalling that line.

So did she indeed treat herself to something special?

“No, not really,” she replied, all la-de-da again, “just a trip to the bank!”

Having outlived two husbands — her second, metal worker-turned-sculptor Herman Peters, died in 2008 after nearly nine years of marriage — she holds her work and family (one son, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren with a fifth on the way) dear.

She used to struggle and juggle to keep up with the demand for her carvings. But these days she doesn’t take orders and tends to tackle one thing at a time.

“I just make what I feel like makin’ as I can make it,” she explained. “I’m 81 now, see, so I’m a gettin’ there. The Lord has really blessed me to still be here and be in my right mind and able to do what I do.”

And when she’s doing what she does, what’s going through her mind?

“Well, I just feel really at peace when I’m a’ wood carvin’ and I enjoy it so much. And when I finish a piece and it looks like I want it to look, why then, that’s all that matters to me. I hope somebody else will feel the same about it, you know.”


Folk Fest 2015

5-10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14: Meet the Artists Party and show opening ($15, includes readmission all weekend and T-shirt); 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16. $7 (free for 16 and younger). North Atlanta Trade Center, 1700 Jeurgens Court, Norcross (exit 101 off I-85). 770-532-1115,

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The AJC Features Team spotlights arts previews, reviews, profiles, news features and breaking news on Atlanta's cultural and life scene.