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A Richmond couple have created a nationwide organization to support folk art and the artists who create it.

The Folk Behind the Art


"If you take a trip with a point of view it can be more interesting, don't you think?" says Ann Oppenhimer, a Tazewell native and former University of Richmond art history professor. I do. And if there was any doubt, it was removed during my three-hour interview with her and her husband, Bill, a retired OB/GYN. Thid included a tour of their home, which is to say a tour of their vast collection of folk art and of the point of view that informs it. Though her comment came in the context of talking about a trip they took to the Southwest to visit with folk artists of the area, it is an apt metaphor for the manner in which the Oppenhimers have, for the past 20 years, gone about collecting folk art, and artists, and for the national scope of their work promoting folk art and connecting with other collectors around the world. It all started in 1982, during a trip they took to Summerville, Ga., to meet Howard Finster, now a well-known artist, but then only on the verge of major recognition. It was a trip that came off, appropriately enough, as if by divine intervention. But it also was a trip they had been prevented from taking by the hand of a jealous art dealer — Finster's art dealer. "He wouldn't even divulge the state the guy lived in," says Bill with a combination of surprise and irritation. Then one day while moving one of Finster's paintings, a portrait of Herbert Hoover (or Hurbert Hoover as Finster labeled it), they discovered Finster had scrawled not only his name on the back of the piece, but his complete address and "earth phone" number as well. "So we picked up the 'earth phone,'" says Bill, " and called him, set up a time and went down to see him." That was about three days before Finster was scheduled to appear on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. "Our life was never the same," says Ann. And neither was their house. From that trip, and from numerous others in the years since, the Oppenhimers have amassed a collection of folk art startling in its size and quality, featuring dozens of Howard Finsters, dozens of Anderson Johnsons, a number of Bessie Harveys, pieces by S.L. Jones, Abe Criss, James Harold Jennings, Derek Webster, Calvin Cooper, Everett Mayo, Noah Kinney, Minnie Adkins, Ed Ambrose, and a guy who goes by the moniker Mr. Imagination. The list goes on. It's a who's who, and a who's not so who, of the folk art world. "It just took over the house like kudzu vine," says Bill. Indeed, it has displaced family photographs, which now occupy a mere 3 square feet of surface area on a table in the living room. Works in their collection include nightmarish figurines that look like something from someone's demented dreamscape; there's a whimsical airplane made out of Diet Coke cans; a painting done on a kerosene can; rudimentary portraits of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, and pop stars such as the larger-than-life-size bust of Michael Jackson hacked out of a tree stump. There are wild-looking buck-toothed faces sculpted onto brown clay jars; there is a lizard made out of gourds; a random figure made out of an old used paintbrush. And there are messages from God, lots of messages from God, such as the following stern admonition, creatively spelled and writ large on a piece of broken plywood and suspended over the bathroom door: "Your Wrong Doings
is in God's Reacord.
if You Don't Make Them
Right While Your
Living. You Will Face Them
When You Die. it
Could Be To Late Then
Don't Risk it.
By Howard Finster, Worlds Minister
of Folk Art Church inc.
2000 and 233 PA"
"He's a self-anointed preacher," says Bill of Howard Finster, the artist who prophetically wrote out his address and phone number on the back of the painting that led the Oppenhimers to his door. "His whole idea is that these are messages from God," says Ann. It is this sensitivity to human connections that forms the point of view from which the Oppenhimers launch their collecting efforts. "We're quite involved with the artists," says Ann, "and that's probably what distinguishes our collection." The Oppenhimers get energized when they talk about the artists whose works now occupy both their Richmond home and their home outside White Stone. The same energy is what powers them in their work on a national level, connecting artists and collectors through the society they founded almost 14 years ago. And again, it was that first connection to Finster that started the ball rolling. After Finster's appearance on "The Tonight Show," an appearance, says Ann, that folk art people can recite "like lines to 'Rocky Horror,'" and a display of his musical as well as artistic talents, Bill suggested Ann arrange an exhibit of his work and a Finster-led workshop at the University of Richmond. Through the process of organizing the show, "we had about 200 people we were writing to, exchanging clippings about Howard and other folk artists," says Ann. "And we sort of had become good friends with these people." According to Bill, the next step also was his idea. ("I'm the dreamer," he says, "she's the doer.) "I said, 'Ann, you've either got to write the definitive book on Howard Finster, or we've got to start something to pull all this together.'" Ann took a pass on the book, but what started as a meeting of six people in the Oppenhimers' Windsor Farms living room, intent on forming a local (as in Richmond) folk art interest group, quickly became an ambitious national organization, The Folk Art Society of America. Ann is its president. The society publishes an advertisement-free magazine, Folk Art Messenger, three times a year and holds an annual conference to connect the society's more than 1,200 dues-paying members around the globe. This October, the annual conference will return to Richmond for its 14th anniversary. In addition to home tours of private collections and a folk art auction, there will be a symposium on African folk art. The Marsh Gallery at the University of Richmond also is staging an exhibit of the Oppenhimer's collection that will open on the same day as the conference. The title of the exhibit: "Point of View: The William and Ann Oppenhimer Collection of American Folk Art." As for the future of their collection, the Oppenhimers remain endlessly curious. And they have recently made a new discovery in nearby Mathews, but they won't divulge his name. "He begged us not to," says Ann. "He said, 'Oh no, no I don't want to get known,'" she says. But making your own discovery can be as easy as driving down a country road. Often folk artists will use their front yards as billboards. "If they have all that stuff out in the yard," says Bill, "that's an advertisement." But they caution those just getting started. With the rising interest in folk art and the rising prices, there are some folks passing themselves off as folk artists who really aren't. "There have been some out-and-out fakes that have been discovered," says Ann. These are people who have made up a good story about their life, or, according to Bill, people who aren't successful in the more traditional, academic world of art and think they can impersonate folk artists. "But it doesn't come over very often," he says. How can you tell? Well, it depends on your point of view. For the Oppenhimers, it's about getting to know their fellow man. For them, art seems to act as a kind of bridge to the artist. And as they walk across it, it becomes of secondary importance to the person they meet on the other side. And so the only way to really know is to cross that bridge. It can make for an interesting trip. "Trained and big-time artists you can't visit," says Bill. "You can visit and talk with true folk artists."

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