By Sherry Lucas
Periwinkles peek shyly from the green ground cover in early spring. Around back, unruly azaleas start to lose their fuchsia fire as delicate dogwoods dot the scene with white. At Wolfe Studio in Jackson, Mississippi, the shed roof’s bank of windows looks out on a pocket of untamed woods. Feasting eyes on the landscape is de rigueur.
That’s the case inside as well as out. Leaning against a studio wall, bathed in northern light, two bold 1930s landscapes by the Mildred Nungester (not-yet Wolfe) bookend a magnetic still life by Karl Wolfe, who in 1944 became her husband. Her lively river and road views from the Decatur, Alabama, home of her youth tap a mesmerizing, nostalgic note — an invitation to a simpler time, a more natural place and pace. It’s not quaint or sentimental, but clear-eyed and engaging.
“I think it has a wonderful mood to it,” Elizabeth “Bebe” Wolfe, their daughter, said, moving seamlessly into her mother’s story of growing up, blocks from the Tennessee River. “She really loved the river and the water,” and the area where poor folks lived in cabins on the other side of the tracks, along the high riverbank, surrounded by rich natural beauty. “That was one of her favorite subjects. … She told once that some of the cabins were painted red and the contrast of the red and the blue river and the green grass and all that was just stunning.
The lively activity around the cabins drew her interest, too, “such a contrast to the civilized little town with its squared-off streets and proper business district.”
The river was still “wild and woolly” but most of the cabins were gone by Bebe Wolfe’s childhood in the 1950s, when she visited Decatur with her mother. “That bank is all full of luxury condos now, if you can imagine,” she said with a rueful laugh, “encroachment.”
Wolfe Studio, established in 1946 in what were then the capital city’s outskirts, is now an oasis in a sea of commercial development. There, home, studio/gallery and artist studio are tucked in a small wood of tall trees, where the traditions of the late Karl and Mildred Nungester Wolfe are passed down and around to generations of artists and collectors. Bebe Wolfe, an artist in her own right, keeps their memory vibrant, Wolfe Studio in creative production and her own artistic pursuits active.
Bebe Wolfe was finishing preparations for the retrospective exhibition The Wolfe Family Legacy May 26 through October 14, 2017 at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Art by all three is drawn from the family collection, private lenders and the museum’s collection for the show of 91 works, plus ephemera. Bebe Wolfe helped choose the works; her essay shares the family’s story in the exhibition catalogue.
Karl Wolfe died in 1984 and Mildred Nungester Wolfe, in 2009. “They were in the community and with the community such a long time — Mildred was 96 when she died,” said Betsy Bradley, Mississippi Museum of Art Director. That longevity and their art, teaching careers, studio and participation in the state’s art institutions make them an important part of Mississippi art history. His portraits include governors and other distinguished Mississippians. Hers include three of author Eudora Welty, including one painted for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The Wolfes’ wide range of media — painting, mosaic, printmaking, stained glass and ceramics — translated to a widespread, indelible mark on the community, from commissioned portraits, fine oils and watercolors, to public art and ceramic nativity sets, Wolfe birds, bunnies and more. They’re embedded in the city’s collective memory, with touchstones in many a home.
Linda Bartling, a Wolfe Studio artist for 27 years, has seen firsthand, piece by piece and year by year, how this art has become a tradition “in many different ways and many happy occasions,” such as weddings, engagements, birthdays and holidays that connect directly to celebrations and dear memories.
“I don’t know how many nativity sets I’ve done for people who get one or two figures a year. … A man from Crystal Springs probably just got the ninth piece for his wife’s birthday,” said Bartling, who has dozens of nativity sets in her own collection, displayed year-round, as well as a mosaic by Mildred Wolfe, wise men by Karl Wolfe, a flock of Wolfe birds and more. Young couples start nativity sets with Mary and baby Jesus and fill it out gradually over years, she said. Grandparents build sets for grandchildren, aunts do the same for nieces. “They’ll come in and we’ll work on color combinations,” making the selections even more personal, Bartling said. Those relationships are key. “One of the things I’ve loved to see is the tradition, the love, the generations. Many people have passed down collections to their children and grandchildren, and that love for the Wolfe art — you just see it passed down and continue.”
“Their fingerprints are on so many different places in our community,” Bradley said, from portrait commissions that connected families to installations in churches and other public spaces.
“My mother and father were committed to the making of beautiful things,” Bebe Wolfe opened her essay on the family legacy. That beauty is not without scars. Some sketches and drawings made it through the 1963 fire that destroyed the original studio. They’d been stacked so tightly only their edges were singed. “I was really happy to find a bunch of them for the show,” she said of the fragile survivors.
She picked up another early painting by her mother, of cabins and children at play in grass that’s a bright, dreamy yellow green. Collector Brad Castle bought it at an auction in New Orleans and brought it by the studio to show Mildred when she was still alive. “It was really, really, really dirty,” Bebe Wolfe said. After he got it cleaned and brought it back by, “I remember her holding it, and her eye going all over it and she would talk about how she loved it so much, the area and the view.”
Her mother’s work were a bolder statement, usually, than her father’s, she said. When they painted subjects side by side, her work conceived big areas with strong composition; his were compositionally strong but more refined in color changes. “He was a master at edges. Really, I just …,” she sighed, “Oh, I wish I could paint that well with edges.”
It’s a rich heritage, she said, “and in some respects, my sensibilities are right in-between them.” Most of her works in the exhibition are interior and personal, expressing feelings in the same way her mother expressed feelings of what she saw, but finding realization in a more abstract way. “Some of the feeling of restraint in some of my work … I feel that same kind of thing in my father’s work.”
For her, it was important to tackle a show of their work now, “because I remember so many things about them and I’m still able … to get all this together. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, either.” She turned 68 in May.
Balancing the prestige and scope of a museum retrospective is the heart of the studio, where many connections are sparked and set. Bebe Wolfe chuckled, recalling out-of-towners who get dragged there by relatives. “People are just blown away, flabbergasted by it all. … People can come expecting one thing and then they are immediately charmed by the surroundings” — the intimate gallery, working studio and nature inspiration at every turn. She credited her creative crew at the studio, too, for investing themselves and representing the ceramic work so well. “That shows right away to people.”
“I think nostalgia’s part of it,” she said. “You’re coming to a place that’s just not the same sleek and polished world we encounter everywhere else in our commercial endeavors — sleek and polished in the sense that there are new places that are attempting nostalgia … some sort of stylistic nostalgia, but it’s sort of canned. And this place is not canned, it’s pretty real.”
Once, a harried customer’s two little children, a boy and a girl, were fighting like cats and dogs in the studio, so the mom sent them outside to play. “The little boy came back in with his face all flushed and he’d been running and his eyes were big and he was so excited, he said, ‘Mama! Guess what I saw!’ and she said, ‘What?’ and he said, ’A big pile of sticks! There’s a big pile of sticks out there!’” Bebe Wolfe burst into laughter, just as she did at the time. “This was coming from a little boy, bless his heart, who lives in such a clean little suburban environment that the sticks are all carefully put in plastic bags and put at the curb and chopped up into certain lengths … and never in his life had he encountered a big pile of sticks.”
“So, it’s that kind of place.