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More Than Just Plain Folk

06/13/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Christy Quebedeaux

Gallery: art collection [11 Images] Click any image to expand.

The Collins’ Art Collection On Display 

By Suzanne Ferrara  |  Photos by Mary Rozas

Wyatt Collins had no idea that one day he’d grow up to be a great lover of folk art and, above all, sort of a catcher in the rye.  Yes, he visited museums and had a general fondness for French impressionism in high school, but he was still very unaware of the role art would play in his life. “From an early age, when I would visit those museums, I can remember appreciating other people’s creations.” It wasn’t until years after he met his wife, Becky, that a particular event would change his life forever.  Call it… “self discovery.”  

Who knows what really evokes the heart in our pursuit for authenticity in life?  For Collins of New Iberia, folk art or self-taught art created by someone-- with absolutely no training --spoke to his heart and soul and opened up his world forever.

 “Most of them are not creating for the money; they are creating because of their inner desire to create for their self-gratification and enjoyment,” says Collins in his deep southern Mississippi drawl.  “They had no one to teach them anything, and a lot of them couldn’t read or write, yet their pieces look like you would have found them within Egyptian Tombs.”  

Just like some collectors do for Picasso, Collins holds the same respect and admiration for folk artists. “I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler,” he laughs, “and I’m impressed with these people because they had no one in sixth grade showing them how to create art, no one saying ‘OK, students we are going to have art today.’  They just did it.”  

Collins, along with his wife, have 2,000 pieces of vernacular art ranging from wood carvings to sculpture to paintings. “People ask me if I’m an artist, and I say ‘no,’ but I am an artist’s best friend. I not only appreciate their work and like to look at it, but I also appreciate it and buy it.” Speaking of friends, he’s forged relationships with dozens of the artists—including Scott’s Pat Juneau-- who have created the pieces he’s added to his collection.

Oh, and what was that aforementioned ‘ah ha’ moment that changed Collins’ life and made him a serious collector?   “I was helping my wife with a fundraiser for carver Rita Fontenot of Carencro, who was sick, and I went house-to-house collecting for that exhibit.”  But it was much more than the art, he discovered; it was also the very people from whom these beautiful creations came that solidified what would be the beginning of a new era in his life.   The year was 2003.   “I realized I could afford this type of art,” Collins recalls.  “A lot of folk art runs from 25 to 500 dollars, and I just started collecting from there. I cherish the 50-dollar pieces as much as the thousands of dollar pieces.”

When asked to name his favorite pieces, Collins ponders for a few seconds and replies, “When you’ve bought as many pieces I have, it is hard to say what attracts me to each piece.  They just do.  There is something in each one that attracted me, and that’s why I bought it.”

However, Collins says, among his top three favorite pieces of art that he couldn’t part with, is a four-by-three-foot canvas of three angels on a big blue background by Annie Welborne.  The piece hangs in his bedroom and was purchased at an auction in Atlanta he attended with Becky.  “It’s probably not worth $300, but I would have a very hard time not keeping that one.”

Another piece he would choose is a carving of Moses done by Tim Lewis.  “It’s interesting to see Lewis’ perspective because, when he looked at a rock or a stone, he didn’t see a rock or a stone; he looked in there and saw Moses and pulled Moses out of that stone.  I defy you to go out in your yard and find a big old rock and tell me what’s inside of it.”  The third piece he says is a painting by Oxford, Mississippi’s Theora Hamlet, but Collins quickly warns, “Just as I’m saying this ‘if I could only take three with me’, I might take others.”

As for the history of folk art and artists, Collins is a walking encyclopedia.  Before you can ask him to name his favorite artists, you first need to know he owns the work of more than 100 artists and craftsmen.  “I like renowned wood carver Edgar Tolson from Kentucky, wood carver Earnest Patton, Minnie Adkins and painter Howard Fenster.”  As for the clan of self-taught Louisiana artists, “I like David Butler from Franklin, Professor Royal Robertson from Franklin and Clementine Hunter from Natchitoches Parish, who is probably the most famous Louisiana folk artist.”

Their assemblage comes from several outlets throughout the South, and the pieces include finds from their bi-annual travels to silent auctions in Atlanta, plus galleries and festivals.  It’s not uncommon for Colllins to purchase these treasured homemade pieces right on the spot. “They love for someone to buy their creations.”

Along with Becky, Collins loves to share their art with others, so much so that they’ve become an instrumental vessel for opening up the world of Southern folk art to others.  In addition to exhibits throughout New Iberia and Lafayette, perhaps one of the most impressive shows is taking place at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette where the items they’ve accumulated are on display to evoke the inner spirit of onlookers. “I’ve been to museums all over the United States, and they did as good of job as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Smithsonian in staging this exhibit.’  

 “He has become an advocate for self-taught artists, and promotes folk artists and helps others who want to purchase this type of art, find the artists,” adds Becky. The exhibit is aptly titled ‘Spiritual Journeys’, and will be on view until August 12.  Becky, a self-taught artist and daughter of a wood carver, has some of her and her father’s craftsmanship on display at the museum.   (We will get to Becky’s art story, along with more on their awe-inspiring home chock-full of wall-to-wall art in an article to follow this one).

The numbers prove that the Spiritual Journeys exhibit has been a huge success, with the opening drawing 500 guests. “I think what has made this exhibition so popular with our visitors is the representational nature of the work, and the way it reflects the DIY or entrepreneurial spirit of our local culture,” adds Hilliard Museum director Louanne Greenwald. And because of the phenomenal success, museum officials are hoping to exhibit yet another large group of the Collins’ collectibles to awe and inspire more people.  

“Becky and Wyatt Collins have been so generous, not only in lending their collection and supporting the project, but also by offering guided tours to groups and volunteering for programs.  They truly are exceptional people,” expresses Greenwald.

As the Collins continue their unending quest to collect more folk art, it’s their hope that one day their beloved collection will become a permanent collection in a museum, in the hands of collectors like themselves, and in their children’s homes to be passed on to future generations.  Again, that’s for the future.

But for now, while sitting in his home, it is apparent Collins misses the pieces that are currently on exhibition at the Hilliard. When asked where he wants to see his art go after this, he fervently replies, “At home with me!”

Life+Leisure, Today, In Print art collection Wyatt Collins Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum

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