The recenT Wolfe Family Legacy exhibition at the Mississippi Museum of Art motivated an afternoon's visit with Bebe Wolfe. I intended to focus upon Bebe and her parents, Mildred and Karl, until I discovered that the spotlight invariably illuminated Karl, the more charismatic of the two, possessed with the gift of gab, and that Mildred lived in Karl's shadow and deserved showcasing.
Karl observed that he was a painter and Mildred was an artist. I assumed otherwise: Karl Wolfe portraits graced homes of my peers and my parents' friends when I was a boy in Jackson. I was mesmerized by their colors. Mildred's work was not as well-known to me.
Bebe said that Mildred "struggled to hold her ground" in the face of Karl's éclat. Mildred constantly challenged herself artistically, exploring frontiers that evaded Karl, who was more conventional as a result of his academic training at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bebe remarked that Mildred's oeuvre encompasses "everyday, ordinary magic". Mildred's paintings are neither fanciful nor fantasies but precise creations in which Mildred delineated what she sought to convey with exactitude; much like a poet. Mildred told Bebe when painting a tree, one cannot compose a generic tree but should focus upon the type of tree; how it moves; its shape, its leaf, and its bark.
Mildred, who moved from Alabama to Mississippi after marrying Karl, initially trained through the equivalent of online courses today: Mildred sent drawings on letter-size sheets of paper, through the mail, to Professor Anson Cross at Columbia University. Professor Cross critiqued each one, on the drawing itself, and returned it with her next assignment. Mildred pursued the coursework between 14 to 17 years of age, learning basic art theory; color, value, oil painting, watercolor, landscape, and portraiture.
Mildred met Karl at the Dixie Art Colony - where Karl taught one month, each year - while she was painting there. The Dixie Art Colony was founded by Kelly Fitzpatrick, who returned from the First World War determined to spend his life doing what he wanted. The Alabama art colony that Kelly Fitzpatrick created influenced a generation of Southern artists.
Kelly Fitzpatrick and Anson Cross were Mildred's mentors.
Mildred finely-honed the instincts inherited from her mother Augusta Nungester. Augusta was talented and able. Augusta worked with her hands and thought visually. Bebe said that Augusta sewed. Augusta's daughters provided illustrations of fashion models, from which she constructed exact replicas that fit precisely, without using a pattern.
Mildred's father Cliff Nungester was an original thinker. Cliff, a pharmacist, read widely and enjoyed a lifelong self-education; attributes which Mildred emulated. Additional demonstrable paternal inheritance derived from Cliff's fishing and hunting along the Tennessee River, which flowed wildly in Northeast Alabama until the Tennessee Valley Authority impounded it. Mildred's interest in nature and landscape painting are Cliff's legacy.
Painting water made Mildred particularly happy. Mildred painted the Gulf, the Ross Barnett Reservoir, rivers, and lakes. The Wolfe Family spent time on the Coast during summers. Mildred painted watercolors on the spot; then and otherwise. Her oil paintings are the product of sketches and memories.
Another benefit of being Cliff Nungester's progeny was that he had two daughters and no sons. Cliff was proud of both of his daughters. Cliff invested in their success. He was determined that nothing should restrain them: His daughters would do what they wanted and achieve. Mildred's older sister taught school. Frances Nungester Elementary School in Decatur, Ala., their hometown, is named in her honor.
Mildred and Karl nourished each other through a creative dynamism throughout their life together. They enjoyed mutual respect, each learning about people through the other's creative processes. The insights that the partnership provided "made them tick", according to Bebe. Bebe said that Mildred and Karl searched for "the mystery in life. It was part of their makeup; to find out what is."
Forgiveness was the foundation of the enduring marriage, but one outrage almost led Mildred to leave. Mildred took Mike and Bebe to visit their grandparents in Alabama. Sudie Schultz convinced Karl that they should hold a yard sale in Mildred's absence, featuring her early work for $5 and $10; that "Mildred wouldn't mind." Mildred was so mad that she remained resentful as a widow in her 90s. "She never got over it."
Love nonetheless prevailed. Jochen Wierich, the museum's chief curator, maintains that the symbiosis allowed them to become better artists: "Karl was a craftsman. Karl put his heart and soul into his work, but his academic training constrained him. Mildred was less fettered allowing greater freedom in her artwork."
Bebe observed that the Wolfe Studio, on Old Canton Road, was created as "an oasis of calm and beauty - that's what mattered to them - kindness, wholesomeness, and an openness to human nature." That eternal achievement is the Wolfe Family legacy to Mississippi in perpetuity.
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.