Ben Wigfall’s art getting a show in Kingston

Ben Wigfall (photo by Nancy Donskoj)

For many years, Ben Wigfall ran the Watermark/Cargo Gallery in Kingston’s Rondout, showing traditional African art and work by contemporary artists in beautifully curated exhibitions. The SUNY New Paltz professor, who taught printmaking at the college for 30 years — he was the college’s first African-American faculty member — discovered Kingston and its black community in the early 1960s and in the 1970s started Communications Village, a printmaking workshop for local youth that also hosted poetry readings and other events. Located in a former mule barn in Ponckhockie, the facility transformed lives, bringing in top artists from New York City to work with the kids, who in turn visited the artists’ studios on field trips to the city. 

Two years after his death, Wigfall’s legacy remains very much alive. Wigfall is one of two cultural leaders now passed — the other is the experimental composer, musician and teacher Pauline Oliveros — who still serve as role models for the organizers of the Midtown Arts District (MAD), which is dedicated to promoting the arts as a vital tool for education, economic development, and cultural enrichment benefiting all the citizens of the city.

What’s not widely known is that Wigfall was an artist himself. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, he earned a BFA at Hampton Institute, in Virginia, taught at the institute, studied at the University of Iowa, which then had a famous printmaking school, then got an MFA at Yale before landing his teaching job at New Paltz.

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Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he showed his work at galleries in New York City, becoming friends with such major figures as Romare Bearden, Benny Andrews, Bob Blackburn, and Mel Edwards (all of whom were involved with Communications Village). Because Wigfall never showed his own work at his Watermark/Cargo gallery, it remained a mystery, until now.

As part of Kingston’s Black History Month celebration, a small sampling of his prints, drawings, and paintings, made in the 1970s or years previous, along with a few choice pieces from his extensive collection of African art, are on view at The Idea Garden, a new gallery and event space on Broadway. The work will be on display through the month of February (the gallery is open 4-8 p.m. on Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. on Sundays, or by appointment; visit www.theideagarden.org.

Formerly the Rendezvous Lounge, the building at 346 Broadway was recently bought and renovated by transplanted New Yorkers Jessica Meyer and Matt Taylor (many decades ago, it was the location of Joe Lawson’s barber shop, a black-owned business that had moved to Midtown from Rondout after the latter was devastated by urban renewal; Lawson’s son Doug attended the opening and shared stories). The show, entitled “Ben Wigfall: the Artist Revealed,” which was organized by MAD board members Richard Frumess and Ray Curran in conjunction with Harambee, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting African-American culture in Kingston, and The A.J. Myers African Roots Library (Center for Creative Education also was involved), “pays homage to the way Ben combined contemporary work and African art in his gallery,” noted Frumess.

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even sculptures carved in wood from Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea, and Cameroon grace the clean white spaces of the gallery’s two narrow rooms (one of which is up a set of stairs), complementing Wigfall’s prints, drawings, a large painting; there’s also a blown-up photographic portrait of the artist, wearing his printer’s apron, taken by Kingston-based photographer Nancy Donskoj. Standing on either side of the door in the store windows are two figures, a monumental seated man and woman, the woman holding a baby, the man with a short beard, their faces meditative, with half-closed eyes, as if they were communing with Wigfall’s spirit and standing guard over this sanctuary of his art.

In the third window, a fertility mask from the Baga People of Conakry, Guinea, consisting of a wooden four-legged female figure whose huge head is adorned with an elaborate coiffure and has metal pieces attached to the nose and lips, gazes with authority out into the street, flanked by two smaller upright figures from the Bangwa/Bamileke people of Cameroon. Positioned against the wall amid a row of Wigfall’s prints is a sculpture of a seated couple, twin-like except for the features distinguishing their gender, the male encircling the female with his arm, and against the opposite wall, a low-slung, carved-wooden bed. On the upper level, a smaller wooden sculpture of a man, presumably a noble or soldier — he holds a spear — seated on a horse exudes dignity, which is underscored by the freshness and simplicity of the design; the horse’s legs flow into the base, enabling you to sense the block of wood from which the voids were carved out.

The powerful, silent presence of these elegiac artworks serves as a counterpoint to Wigfall’s “talking” prints—aquatints and/or etchings (the pieces incorporate delicate lines and rich painterly tonal areas) inscribed with words telling stories about personages in the South, including a few of Wigfall’s kin, which in many cases allude to their African roots. The language is colloquial, with repetitions of “yeah,” “nah,” “uh,” “I think,” and the like, capturing the cadences of speech. In one piece, the narrator recounts all the Southern states he traveled through as a young man and notes, “The first trip I went to Florida on a turpentine still and I looked around and I said Goddamn I AINT GOING TO BE HERE”. The hand-written letters sprawl across the page, variously bunching up or spacing out, curling across the page and diminishing in size, as if the voice was trailing off; other sentences are written out in enormous letters, which shout out at you, i.e. THE PEOPLE FROM NIGERIA LOOK VERY MUCH LIKE SOME OF US however you will find SOME OF THOSE PEOPLE FROM KENYA LOOK LIKE SOME OTHER OF US.” 

The telling is as expressive as what’s being told, and the elusive, perhaps contradictory meanings conveyed by some of the text — “He was brought here a slave but not as a slave because by the time he was brought here they was supposed to if they take you take you like an orphan child and learn you how to go on your own” — suggests histories fragmented and obscured by slavery, though clear identities emerge. For example, one piece tells how Mike Benjamin (“that’s who Ben’s named after”) “CAME FROM SOMEWHERE on the coast of AFRICA” and worked on the cotton boat before he was “purchased by a farmer.”

Another recounts the accomplishments of Wigfall’s mother’s cousin John Milton Benjamin, who “put up several rural telephone lines I mean he’d master the whole job and uh he designed several of those white people’s houses around there yeah he just got books and studied but he just PRACTICED and STUDIED….Uncle John BENJAMIN OH THAT MAN had a HEAD on his shoulders.” 

“The word pieces are so incredible. They harken back to the African tradition of griot, or storytelling,” said Frumess, who writes in a statement accompanying the show: “The subject matter for many of [the prints] are statements and sayings, some in remembrance of his father, that bridge visual art with oral history.” Wigfall’s fascination with colloquial speech and storytelling persisted in the years he was running Communications Village, when he walked around with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and made “sound portraits” of the Rondout and Ponckhockie neighborhoods, capturing people’s casual conversations. (Friends and family members are on a quest to locate the tapes; Wigfall spoke of the tapes a year or so before he died but could not recall where they’d got to). 

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he exhibition also includes Wigfall’s marvelous woodcut of a girl jumping rope, which is echoed by two receding jumping rope figures, a moody abstract charcoal drawing in which symbols and forms seem to emerge from a stormy atmosphere, and a large painting, entitled Stepping Stones, from 1955, in which the motif of rounded squares, arranged in rows and in varying scales, in earthy yellows, greens, browns and oranges, suggest a passage through a landscape. In the upstairs room, a short film by Sarah Carlson about Wigfall and the cataloging of his African art collection plays on a loop; the film’s interviews with his daughter and one of the young women hired to catalog the collection attest to how even in death, Wigfall continues to inspire and influence people.

In the exhibition statement, Frumess writes that the show is the first of many planned of Wigfall’s work and collection through the collaboration of Harambee, The A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Library, and MAD. Woodstock gallery owner, art collector and auctioneer James Cox is representing the works in Wigfall’s estate and was instrumental in bringing in Vira Jones, who founded and runs The Bedford-Stuyvesant Museum of African Art in Brooklyn, to assess the value of hundreds of pieces. Jones, who is an expert in African art — she travels to Africa frequently and has been collecting for decades — will give a talk at the gallery on Feb. 23, from 3-5 pm.

“The original plan was to auction off Ben’s collection to raise money to exhibit Ben’s work, but then we started thinking about having a satellite of Vira’s museum up here,” said Frumess, noting such a discussion is in the early stages. In the meantime, he’s thrilled to have finally given visibility to Wigfall’s work and resurrected a career that got coverage in Art in America and other prestigious art publications in the 1950s. “He doesn’t have a huge body of work, although some prints have editions of 10 or 12,” Frumess commented. “There are quite a few paintings, which are not in great shape.” (Ironically, Wigfall, who was so meticulous in handling and exhibiting other’s work, was careless with his own, said Frumess.) “But there are some beautiful ones that will knock your socks off.”

 

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