Not Just Plain Folk Part II
● By Robert Frey
Inside Becky & Wyatt Collins Home
By Suzanne Ferrara | Photos by Fusion Photography
In our June issue, we featured a story on the personal folk art collection of Wyatt and Becky Collins and how a portion of it was being displayed at the Paul and Lulu Hillard University Art Museum. The Collins invited us over for tea to see the rest of their collection, and we couldn’t have jumped on the opportunity any faster.
When you step into the Collins’ New Iberia home, you walk into a wonderland of art. You can’t help but instantly fall into this whimsical world that will certainly capture your imagination and carry you to another place.
Every room in their house, including all of the bathrooms and just about every nook and cranny, is methodically covered with eclectic pieces of folk and the art self-taught artist. Together, they’ve acquired more than 2,000 pieces of art through auctions, friends, festivals or directly from the artists themselves. “We really live with it,” says Becky Collins. “It is truly something special for us and means more for us than just collecting.”
Smithsonian of Folk Art
There are no words or images that could ever capture this magnificent scene or truly express the uplifting emotion and spirit that seems to exude from every prized piece of the Collins’ collection. Art ranging from a handmade table with a multitude of intricate exquisite movable details exemplifying Louisiana, which Wyatt commissioned artist Steven Armstrong to create for him, to a completed nativity scene created by personal friend Pat Juneau are just minute portion of these displayed treasures. There are also puppets, dolls, paintings, textile creations, woodcarvings and even a painted men’s suit and matching hat.
You can easily get lost in this sea of curious art and spend several hours gazing at their collections. Their household isn’t the only place you will find their broad accumulation of art: their collections are also (1) on exhibit at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum; (2) on display in their club house; and (3) carefully tucked away in their storage unit. “When you see all this here, and view our collection on exhibit at the Hilliard, you will wonder how the hell we got it all in this house. I can promise you that!” exclaims Wyatt.
Becky and Wyatt are not only avid collectors who have made a name for themselves in the art circles; they are also deeply intertwined with museum representatives from around the country. Their connections in the art world also extend to collectors, artists and art book authors. This isn’t surprising and seems apropos when you own one of the vastest arrays of folk art or self-taught art on the planet. In fact, one could easily call their home a ‘Smithsonian of folk art.’ Folk art from the southern region of the United States, including Acadiana, are represented inside their home and the works of legendary folk artists like Wyatt Waters and Helen LaFrance are there as well.
Pointing to the dining room table covered with newly purchased art that will soon join the rest of their collections on display, Becky says, “I curate our collection, and I’m curating baskets, pottery and wooden carved pieces right now.” Her curating wheel never stops turning; she’s constantly reworking their personal art assemblages, which continue to grow. Becky, a self-taught artist who is also a veteran art teacher, was raised in a family that created art, including her father who carved magnificent wooden folk art pieces that are also displayed in her home.
In one of their bedrooms, Wyatt points out a painting by Clementine Hunter, one of Louisiana and America’s most prolific self-taught folk artists. As he gazes at Hunter’s painting of cotton fields and field pickers, Wyatt says, “I bought it as a fake because the seller, who was a friend of mine, said if I didn’t buy it as a fake, he would charge me $5,000 for it; so I bought it as a fake for $500.” Wyatt believes Clementine Hunter created the picture in her later years when she was in her 80s.
Enthusiastically, Becky holds a book in her hands like a precious baby and says, “Wyatt gave me a choice between a diamond ring or this book that my sister and I published together, and I chose the money to publish this book.” That book titled, “Clementine Hunter: A Sketchbook,” is considered one of the most important documentations of Hunter’s work and holds some of her earliest works of her primitive paintings.
Becky says the book wouldn’t have become a reality if a collector from New Orleans hadn’t acquired the black portfolio that contained some of Clementine Hunter’s original oil-to-paper creations. She says the portfolio was found sitting on top of an armoire at Melrose Plantation where Hunter lived and worked. The file, which contained 26 of her original works and her signature, was being stored at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans when it came into Becky’s hands.
“So, the curator of the Ogden Museum pulls the portfolio from a vault, and says to me he’s hoping to find someone to publish the portfolio. When he opened it up and it said, Melrose 1945 Clementine Hunter, I had chill bumps, and I said, ‘I think we can get that book published!’” (Fun Fact: Clementine Hunter created more than 5,000 paintings, mostly in oils, depicting her dreams, memories and plantation life in a colorful presentation.) Speaking of books, there are hundreds of art books, including rare copies inside the Collins’ home, and that does not include those they’ve donated to various schools for research purposes.
Tour of Treasures
So, with a treasure trove of art and books, to say their home is the site of utmost interest from outsiders is an understatement. Hundreds of people-- including notables from the art scene and museum directors from New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Kentucky--have anxiously stepped foot inside their art filled abode to get an eyeful. Who are they playing host to this month? Doctors Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers, both authors of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 23: Folk Art.” Art Historian Susan Crowley, who is also responsible for the publication, is a visiting New Iberia to see the Collins’ collection. “They’re also anxious to see our collection at the Hilliard,” adds Becky.
The Collins estimate more than a hundred people a year make their way through their home to see their personal collections from museum curators, famous artists, scholars and civic groups, and Becky says it’s not always formal visits. “There was this couple and their dog, and they stopped and admired our yard art, and we invited them in to see what was inside,” says Becky. Wyatt adds, “Everyone who comes through our doors sees something they like and something that speaks to them.”
Wyatt, who is an agent and promoter of folk art, is also on the board of the Folk Art Society of America. That connection has also kept a steady stream of folk art lovers and experts traveling down to Acadiana to see their home, amass with folk art treasures. Wyatt points out he and Becky are not just big advocates of art, adding that when people come down to visit, they entertain and promote Acadiana, too. “We have people all the time at the visitor center calling us to see if they can come by. If you walk down the street and we grab you, we will show it to you, too! We like to share it, and it’s here for people to see and enjoy.”