Minnie Adkins didn’t intend to become a world-famous folk artist. She started carving wood out of necessity.
As a girl growing up in Elliott County in the 1930s and ’40s, Adkins started whittling. “I used to make slingshots and pop guns and whistles,” she said. She made her own toys “because there wasn’t any toys to play with. If I had a sharp knife, I could turn out a lot of good toys.”
Adkins still lives on her family’s land. She’s still whittling and carving, but now instead of toys, she makes art pieces that are sold all over the world.
Probably her most iconic piece is a rooster carved from the crotch of a tree branch. She created her first rooster accidentally. “I made it up as I went. I used to make slingshots,” she said. One time, though, she took “a branch of a tree and gave it a head and a tail. Instead of a slingshot, I had a rooster.”
Adkins has made hundreds of roosters since she started creating and selling art in the 1980s, but she also is known for her foxes, opossums, bears and a variety of brightly colored animals. Her style is distinctive, strong and original.
“Minnie Adkins made artwork that has become iconic,” said Matt Collinsworth, director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead. “Her roosters and the horses she made with her late husband, Garland, are some of the dominant images associated with American folk art in the late 20th century.”
Minnie and Garland were married 46 years and were a good team. “When I got to making stuff, I laughed and told everybody I taught Garland to whittle. That burned him up,” she said. When asked if she had exaggerated a bit to rib her husband, Adkins reiterated she’d never seen him carve until she showed him how.
They encouraged other folk artists in their part of the state to create as well. In 1989, the book O, Appalachia: Artists of the Southern Mountains was published and helped change Americans’ view of folk artists. “After that book came out, people would come out and find me,” Adkins said. She then would take those visitors to meet other local artists, using her success to help others.
That’s not surprising. According to Collinsworth: “As important as Minnie’s work is on its own merits, she became equally important as an ambassador for folk art. She built relationships with collectors and scholars, and brought them to the region. She encouraged fledgling artists to try their hand. She built a strong arts community in Elliott County, and she founded one of America’s first folk art fairs.”
That fair was A Day in the Country, which started at Adkins’ house. She held the first one in the 1980s and invited fellow artists to show their work. The event allowed folk art fans to meet the artists and buy directly from them. The festival grew in size and popularity. “It was hard on me,” Adkins said, having to buy insurance and clean up the property afterward. “There was like a thousand people at my house the night before for a wienie roast,” she said. That’s when she knew she couldn’t host the event anymore. She contacted the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, and the festival has been held there since 2003. It takes place the first Saturday in June every year.
When Garland died of cancer in 1997, Adkins said she was brokenhearted. Her grandson encouraged her to continue carving, and she said his support and the carving kept her going. She eventually married again and Herman, her second husband, also was an artist. She said that he told her, “ ‘Anything you can make out of wood, I can make out of iron.’ I said, ‘Prove it to me,’ and he did.” One of Herman’s blue metal roosters sits on the railing of Minnie’s porch.
Adkins is a widow again, having lost Herman in 2008, and shares her land with family members. At 82, she is reflective about her life. In an outbuilding near her home, she has begun collecting some of her early works that were sold. Her grandson, Greg Adkins, is helping her find and buy pieces that have sentimental value. “It was like buying back good memories and preserving the past of what I have done,” she said. Her grandson brought home a carving of her and Garland in a porch swing. “I’d forgotten it,” she said. “I cried when I saw it.”
Adkins is still quite active, attending A Day in the Country as well as Minnie Adkins Day (see sidebar) and continuing to sell her work. “Minnie Adkins is the most important female wood carver in the history of American folk art,” Collinsworth said. But she has not let fame go to her head. Her prices are still reasonable, with many pieces less than $200. “I don’t think it’s right to raise your prices when you get known,” she said.
She likes to whittle in her recliner with a towel on her lap to catch the shavings. She can look outside her window and see the expanses of green with trees fringed around them. It’s her favorite spot to work because “I’m close to the telephone. I can whittle and talk,” she said.
Her house is nice but not grand. She has some of her work in the house but not much. She said visitors often expect her house to be “decorated full of folk art. My family and great-grands mean more to me than the folk art does,” she said. Her walls are full of family pictures, and her great-grandchildren’s drawings cover her refrigerator. Her granddaughter Madi’s drawings of blue roosters look familiar.
Minnie plans to continue carving, although she doesn’t take special orders. “I don’t take orders on anything,” she said. “I just do for myself anymore.”
When she looks back on her life, she seems content. “I feel like I’ve been blessed beyond blessing to still be here,” she said. And many folk art fans feel the same.
Celebrating Minnie and Her Art
Minnie Adkins Day was started in 2014 by folk art aficionado and former gallery owner Larry Hackley in recognition of Adkins’ work in and beyond Elliott County. She considers it an honor. “It is wonderful,” she said. “It’s got good fellowship and good, friendly people. It’s a good place to go.”
According to Adkins, there were 30 vendors the first year and 60 last year. While the focus is folk art, other vendors also set up, including a Mary Kay representative last year. “That’s all right,” Minnie said. She said she likes it if “everybody prospers.”
According to Adkins, people came from all over the country to last year’s event, including a woman from Pennsylvania and a couple from North Carolina who intend to return this year. “I love it,” Adkins said. She loves meeting everyone who visits. She said the event reminds her of A Day in the Country before it got too big for her to handle. And with Minnie Adkins Day, she doesn’t have to run it as she did A Day in the Country.
The event takes place on the grounds of Little Sandy Lodge. Adkins said the lodge was already booked solid as of December and has a waiting list for the event—a sure sign of Minnie Adkins Day’s increasing popularity.
Kids' Books and Collaborations
Not only is she a famous wood carver, Minnie Adkins also is a children’s book illustrator. Mike Norris, a former director of communications at Centre College, is the author of the books.
Their third collaborative effort, Mommy Goose: Rhymes from the Mountains, was released Feb. 5 by The University Press of Kentucky. As with their books Sonny the Monkey and Bright Blue Rooster: Down on the Farm, Norris has written a story, and Adkins has carved figures to illustrate it.
The two met in 1992, when Centre College gave Adkins the Jane Morton Norton Award. While she and husband Garland were at the college, Norris served as their escort. He gave Adkins a CD of his songs to take home with her. The CD included a quirky tune called “Bright Blue Rooster.” “He wore a suit and necktie down there, and that song didn’t suit him,” Adkins said.
Intrigued by his whimsical side, Adkins carved a rooster and sent it to Norris. She told him, “I can’t get that song out of my head.” Norris responded by saying, “I can’t get that rooster out of my head.”
He asked her to carve all the characters in the song—which included “a three-legged hog, a wore-out tractor and a no-count dog”—with the idea of creating a children’s book. The result was their first book together, Bright Blue Rooster: Down on the Farm. The pair used the same template for their third book.
Adkins is a pragmatic artist and is fine with Norris giving her directions. She said she heard a speaker at a conference once talking about how the wood speaks to him and lets him know what to carve. “I’ve been carving for years, and if a piece of wood spoke to me, I’d be scared,” she said.
While Mother Goose was an influence, Adkins said Mommy Goose is original. “He made up every one of them,” she said of the stories. “Some of them is plumb funny.”
Adkins clearly has respect and affection for Norris. “He is one nice person,” she said.
While the books are available at bookstores and on Amazon.com, Adkins said there are special collector’s editions that can be purchased only from Norris or Adkins. In the first two books, Adkins did individual drawings on each title page. The collector’s edition of Mommy Goose is available from Norris, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. It includes a CD with songs based on the book and a conversation between the two collaborators. The cover page of each collector’s edition will be hand stamped with an image of one of Adkins’ figures, which she has colored by hand, making it a unique piece of art.