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Feature Story: Worlds Apart

Folk art brings its own peculiar power to a proper Windsor Farms household.

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William and Ann Oppenhimer, who are opening their home to tour-goers during Garden Week in Virginia, surround themselves with the artifacts of two decades spent studying, collecting and writing about folk art in its infinite variations.

In their house, designed by architect Clarence Huff in the 1930s, the elegant comforts of very-Richmond interiors — family antiques, Persian rugs and inviting upholstery — coexist with a museum's worth of strange and fascinating objects and paintings, carvings and sculptures, all crowded together in lovingly composed vignettes.

Each object has a story, and another story for the artist who created it. The Oppenhimers are intimately familiar with this world of outsider art, as it is also known, and have traveled thousands of miles on back roads across the country to get to the source of their interest: the artists who live to create these pieces with wild, untrained abandon.

It might seem an unlikely fit, the retired physician and the professor tramping through woods to gain audience with an often illiterate, perhaps dyslexic artist struggling to salvage enough materials to make the next creation.

But the Oppenhimers are comfortable traversing both worlds, forming long friendships with the artists and elevating discussion of their work by founding the Folk Art Society of America. They publish a distinguished magazine, Folk Art Messenger, and are internationally known for their involvement in the field, often lecturing and organizing conferences and auctions, and always searching out new artists to befriend and new additions for their collection.

The challenge, they say, is finding a place for it all. The basement is overflowing. Every surface is covered, albeit gorgeously, with particular favorites. There is so much art that the couple arranged a traveling exhibition for part of the collection. Over the past four years, 86 significant pieces were shown in museums and universities along the East Coast. Now those works are home again, muscling past new pieces that came in to fill the void.

The Oppenhimers laugh about this potentially chaotic predicament: As Garden Week approaches, they are forced to confront the storage and display concerns that all homeowners worry about. How best to show their collection and still leave room for visitors? And how will the garden club design flower arrangements that will complement, and not compete with, the vivid and original work of their beloved artists?

Both husband and wife seem unfazed, more likely to savor the opportunity that a looming deadline presents than worry about it. This house will always be what it is, a shrine to imagination and its power, a celebration of the creative spirit. And if it seems cluttered in comparison to other houses, that just means more to see and learn about.

Elegant, sophisticated animals carved of basswood in eastern Kentucky by Linvel and Lillian Barker are displayed on focal-point shelving in the living room. Wooden statuary by New Mexican artist Sabinita Lopez Ortiz stands on a chest. There are paintings by Milo Russell and Robert Sholties, a face jug by Albert Hodge, and an array of figurative paintings, carvings and constructions nearly screaming for attention.

It's as if this house is fully inhabited at all times, which reminds Ann Oppenhimer of a quote from their friend and mentor Bert Hemphill: "When a new work of art comes into a collection, all of the others sit in judgment of it."

And sure enough, Abraham Lincoln seems to be checking out Herbert Hoover, and various busty women in eye-catching garments appear to be talking amongst themselves over in the corner.

If the folk artists — sharecroppers and coal miners, preachers, teachers, vaudevillians — intended to give their works a palpable aura, they succeeded. Personalities are strong in this fantasy world, and statements are boldly rendered. Out in the Oppenhimers' garden, a white oak tree trunk carved by John Anderson of Louisa County is an example. "It looked like [the flag raising at] Iwo Jima when they loaded it off the truck," William Oppenhimer recalls, "and it had to land just right." Now the sculpture dominates the space. Named "Coming for My Children," it shows a bearded male angel embracing two children. An original English boxwood hedge that surrounds the 8-foot-tall carving recedes into the background; the chainsaw carving captures the eye and imagination in a way that traditional plantings cannot.

For those who are new to collecting, this house and its owners offer a lesson in seizing their passion and disregarding concerns about where to put things or how new acquisitions will fit in among the necessities of daily living. Such things have a way of falling into place, these collectors say. The Oppenhimers' home may be unorthodox inside, but it is fully, wildly alive and far more beguiling as a result.

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