Ben Wigfall remembered as African-American arts pioneer

Ben Wigfall. (photo by Nancy Donskoj)

Benjamin Wigfall, a retired professor of art at SUNY New Paltz and former owner of the Watermark Cargo Gallery in Kingston, died on Thursday, Feb. 9, at age 86. Wigfall, who had been in frail health for the last several years, received a special art award from County Executive Mike Hein in 2014. This week he was mourned by many in the community who spoke of the tremendous impact his teaching, curatorial talents and community work — specifically, the print shop, called Communications Village, he started and ran in Ponckhockie — had on many lives, an influence that continues to resonate.

“Ben’s Communications Village in Ponckhockie in the 1970s and ’80s has lived on as an inspiration and historical precedent for the work we are doing today to make the [Midtown] Arts District and the arts in general here in Kingston benefit the people who live here,” said Richard Frumess, president of the board of directors for the arts district and founder of R&F Handmade Paints. “His Watermark/Cargo Gallery that he ran from 1988 until about seven years ago was one of the most elegant galleries I have known, and that too remains an inspiration for us.

“With the recent passing of Pauline Oliveros, we have lost two giants of Kingston’s art world and two very dear friends,” Frumess added.

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Wigfall, who was born in Richmond, Va., in 1930 and became SUNY New Paltz’s first African-American professor when he began teaching there in 1963, was also a gifted teacher. “What I remember best was his great generosity of spirit,” said Rosendale-based artist Tom Sarrantino, who after studying with Wigfall at SUNY New Paltz showed his work at the Watermark Cargo, which specialized in African and contemporary art. “He was so supportive and nurturing. He also had a great eye and feeling for artwork. I was always pleasantly surprised at the way he would hang my work. He would find ways to make visual sense of things, and I trusted him absolutely.”

Wigfall showed his prints at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Norfolk Museum and other institutions. He attended a segregated school lacking an art teacher and later became the first black student at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, eventually earned an MFA at Yale, where he studied with Josef Albers. Wigfall founded Communications Village in a former brick mule barn in Ponckhockie after discovering the area on car trips from New Paltz with his wife, Mary. Local youths made prints and studied photography and drawing at the center, which attracted major, mostly African-American visiting artists from New York City.

Dina Washington, who works at the Uptown Kingston post office and grew up in Ponckhockie, worked at Communications Village for a few years starting at age 14. “Ben loved art so much, and he wanted everyone around him to love art. He shared his passion,” she said. “He taught us how to operate the printing press, and he taught me everything about the dark room. He would have art shows of our work, and we were so proud. Ben really believed that it takes a village to raise a child. The fact that he looked like us meant a lot.”

Washington recalled several field trips to the city visiting Romare Bearden’s studio and movie nights at Communication Village. “He was everybody’s mentor,” she said, noting that thanks to Ben’s influence, her sister graduated from Bard College. “He would just plant seeds and encourage and advise. He was a phenomenal human being, and I’m so grateful to have had him in my life.”

Guyana-born artist Andrew Lyght heard about Wigfall from other artists when Lyght was living in New York City. He first met Wigfall at an opening for an exhibition of Martin Puryear’s work in 2009. There was a long waiting list of folks interested in purchasing the former Communications Village barn from Wigfall, and upon meeting Ben again, Lyght “cracked a job about putting me at the top of the list,” he said. After showing Wigfall his portfolio, Wigfall sold him the building, which Lyght transformed into his studio and home.

“Ben had an incredible eye, and he also had his principles, which is the reason this building sat closed for 20 years,” said Lyght. Neighbors have told him many stories about Communications Village. “They showed me some prints they made with Ben,” he said. “He used to give them pocket money to go out and shoot pictures using a Polaroid camera.”

Several months ago, Wigfall and his wife drove to the Uptown Post Office to visit Washington. “I went out to the car and I hugged him,” Washington said. “I loved that man, and he never let me go.”

Besides his widow, Wigfall leaves a son, Gino Wigfall, and daughter, Gia, and son-in-law Dr. T. Peter Oke-Bello, along with four grandsons.

There is one comment

  1. TheRedDogParty

    I met Professor Wigfall during my years as an MFA student at SUNY New Paltz. Over the years, we ran into each other often. He was a person of a high moral, professional, and artistic integrity, and was always generous in every way. He will be missed by the many generations of colleagues and students who were lucky enough to have known him.

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