Renowned folk artist Minnie Adkins didn’t have toys as a child, but she knew if she had a knife she could make them, writer Mike Norris recalled. An uncle gave her a knife, he said, with this warning, “Now Minnie, if you cut yourself you know I’m going to be in big trouble.”
“Before long she could make anything she wanted,” Norris aid. “She just had that gift. and so the first thing she ever made was toys for herself.” Now 82, Adkins was born and raised in Elliott County. She sees herself primarily as a wood carver, using basswood.
Norris said Adkins is fast. “It’s almost like watching somebody sketch. You can see that fox or bear just come out of that block of wood,” he said. Adkins said she used to go down to the woods herself to gather sticks, but now has hired a man to do the gathering for her. She also has someone sharpen her knives for her.
“Some people says they can look at a piece of wood and it speaks to them, and tells them what it wants to become. I’ve whittled all my life. But if I picked up a piece of wood and it started talking to me, well, that would scare me real bad,” she said with a laugh. “So I just pick up a piece of wood and decide what I want to make with it, what I want it to look like, and I try as hard as I can to do that,” she said.
Art dealer Larry Hackley said people are drawn to the joyous quality of her carvings. “Because they’re humorous, I think there’s this instant, joyous thing that comes over a lot of people when they see it, see her work.” said Hackley. “That’s the first impression I think. You get a little deeper into her work and figure out that there are things that she’s speaking to out of her immediate experience.”
Adkins described the funniest piece she ever created. “The art and craft foundation in Louisville, they asked me to make a different piece that nobody had seen. So I made this purple creature and I give him yellow teeth, and put pawpaw seeds in his mouth that looked like roaches, and I called him a roach terminator.”
She and Norris have collaborated on a number of children’s books. “He called me and said, why, if you’ll make the characters …, we’ll put it into a children’s book. And I thought that was fun.”
Besides “Bright Blue Rooster,” the two collaborated on “Sonny the Monkey” And “Mommy Goose Rhymes from the Mountains.” “I’m proud of each one of them,” Adkins said. “But my favorite is the Bright Blue Rooster.”
Norris said the Mommy Goose character is special for him. He said he also gets a strong feeling of reverence when he looks at her carvings of biblical scenes like the Garden of Eden or Noah’s Ark.
Adkins also whittles a small woman character that is her self-portrait. “And they have become as popular as my animals are,” she said. “And I make red top and black britches and blue shoes.”
Adkins also designs quilts and paints. “Folk art is art from the heart, and it’s to make people happy. And if they enjoy my work – a lot of people enjoys it, a lot of people don’t like it, you know. But that’s the reason we have all these different artists.
“And so for somebody to buy something from me and then send me a card back of how they enjoy a picture where they’ve set it in their home, you know, that is really an uplift to me–to know they enjoy what I do.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2207, which originally aired on November 19, 2016. Watch the full episode.