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The whittler of whimsy 

Artist Minnie Adkins keeps a traditional Appalachian craft alive. Matt Collinsworth, director of the Kentucky Folk Art Center, has called her “the most important female wood carver in America.” The Isonville native and Grayson RECC member has pieces in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Huntington Museum of Art. Through Adkins’ 40-year career, she has won prestigious awards including a Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship from South Arts and Kentucky Governor’s Artist Award. 

Adkins was first drawn to woodwork at age 10, watching her dad craft axe handles and other practical tools on the family’s Appalachian homestead. First, she made her own tools like bows and arrows, then her creations became more whimsical, decorative and fun. Many of her works feature the animals she knows from living in rural Kentucky, like a carved mother possum paired with two babies that dangle from her wooden tail and multiple variations on a rooster. Others share stories of her Christian faith, like Daniel and the Lion’s Den. 

While Adkins has whittled almost her whole life, it wasn’t until 1984 that she began to market and sell her carvings as folk art. As the popularity of her crafts grew, scholars and collectors began to make pilgrimage to Elliott County. She used her fame and connections for others, encouraging more than a dozen regional folk artists like Tim and Jimmy Lewis and introducing them to the art market.  

A chance meeting between Adkins and writer Mike Norris decades ago has led to an ongoing collaboration. Inspired by his folksy rhyme, “A bright blue rooster and a three-legged hog, a wore out tractor and a no-count dog,” she sent him four carvings. That line began their first book, Bright Blue Rooster, a compilation of whimsical words accompanied by photos of expressive wooden figures. Their fifth book, Mommy Goose’s Appalachian Melodies, publishes this year and features more than 200 new carvings. 

Bright Blue Rooster, photo by Kim Kobersmith.
Daniel and the Lion’s Den, photo by Mike Norris.
Harlie’s Bad Dream, photo by Mike Norris.

Adkins celebrated her 90th birthday in April, but is showing no signs of slowing down. She and Norris, who grew up in a Jackson Energy Cooperative member family, have book number six underway, a photographic exposition featuring a collection of her carvings. It will be a window into her personal “Mimi Museum” full of pieces she has repurchased to share with her kids and grandkids. It is near her house on the family homestead.  

On July 20, the town of Sandy Hook is celebrating the 10th annual Minnie Adkins Day on the grounds of the Sandy Hook Lodge. With more than 60 folk art vendors from across the country and live music, everyone is welcome at this family-friendly event. A raffle offers chances to win a quilt featuring appliqued versions of many of Adkins’ iconic figures. The Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, which holds one of the largest collections of her work, will host a special Minnie Adkins exhibit during the event. 

One of the things that draws people to Adkins’ work is her warm and generous spirit. She has attracted people from across the country to be part of Minnie Day. Regular attendee Dean Brown from San Francisco is helping advertise the event this year, and renowned singer Abe Partridge often shares his voice with the crowd.  

Adkins is an ambassador for Appalachian craft and a believer in the accessibility of folk traditions. “I love life, I love people and I love to carve,” she says. “You don’t have to be educated to make folk art. It is art from the heart.” 

Minnie Adkins’ work can be viewed in the permanent collection of the Kentucky Folk Art Museum and is sold online through the Possum County Folk Art Gallery.

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