Several book illustrations hang on the center’s walls.

MOREHEAD Say the word folk art and those NOT in the know might conjure up Jed Clampett whittling and crying out “Wee Doggies.”

Then, drive down to Morehead to visit the Kentucky Folk Art Center and take a look at that collection and your eyes will be opened wide.

The center has its roots in a small collection housed in a classroom on the campus of Morehead State University. That was in 1985.

Then in 1992, the new MSU president saw the importance of this kind of artwork and put in motion the first steps to preserve and share it.

He had the collection moved to a 4,600-square-foot building on campus. There it stayed until the collection’s current home opened. That is the Union Grocery, a 19th century groceries warehouse.

Today, the center houses a collection of approximately 1,400 pieces of sculpture and paintings.

Now back to the question of what is folk art. Don’t call it “primitive” or Tammy Stone, the center’s administrative assistant, will quietly and politely correct you.

“It is self-taught art,” she said. “They are using the experiences they have had from childhood memories or experiences like a car accident and being in the hospital.”

This collection has come from artists who picked up a piece of wood or paper and colors and let their imaginations take the lead.

“They realized they have the talent,” Stone said.

And these artists span the generations.

“We have a lot of new artists emerging,” she said.

Artists in their 30s and 40s are giving folk art a contemporary look.

New to the art form is the center’s interim director Julia Finch.

Finch, a medieval art historian, came to Morehead from Pittsburgh to join the MSU faculty in 2014.

This introduction to folk art quickly became an appreciation.

“At first I was totally naive about folk art,” she said. “But this is reframing how we look at art. These artists have stories to tell about their religious beliefs or their landscapes.”

Now she sees a strong relationship between this form and the medieval art she has studied in her academic career.

While there are contemporary artists, there are many who still prefer the traditional.

And of that group, definitely one of the grande dames is Minnie Adkins, whose work is on exhibit now.

Many years ago, Adkins was in Morehead and passed by a pottery shop owned by Adrian Swain of the center’s staff. On the sidewalk were some wooden carvings.

“I went in and said I can do things like that,” she said.

That started a career that has put her work in collections internationally.

And Adkins has no plans to slow down.

“I’m 88 and I’m still whackin’ them out,” she said.

BENITA HEATH is a freelancer living in Ashland.

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