Quite the Collection
New Iberia Schoolteachers Becky and Wyatt Collins oversee an impressive and improbable folk art catalog
From the very beginning, The Becky and Wyatt Collins Folk Art Collection — the same collection you can see at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum from now until the end of the summer — was D.O.A.
Which, when you think about it, makes sense considering the first piece Wyatt ever ordered was a tiny coffin by James Henry “Son” Thomas, the blues singer from Greensville, Mississippi.
“I still think it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wyatt says. “Becky hates it.”
Wait, wait…what was wrong with the coffin, Becky?
“Probably the fact that it was just so ugly,” she says without hesitation thanks to the equity built up in a long marriage. “So primitive. The day the package arrived from Texas, Wyatt screamed, ‘Becky, you have got to see this!’ His face was as lit up as a Christmas tree. ‘My first piece of folk art has arrived! I can’t wait to show it to you.’ And he opened it up and I looked at it and here is this dead man in a coffin with a tooth and I’m going, ‘Allllllllllright?’ But because I have so much faith in my husband, I didn’t voice any reservations.”
That’s a good thing, because had Becky objected way back when, surely the Collinses’ modest home wouldn’t be bursting at the seams with folk art like it is today. Close to 2,000 pieces — from here, there, and basically everywhere — fight for precious real estate among bothersome necessities like furniture and refrigerators. Not to get too Seussian, but there’s art on the walls, in the halls, crammed in a box, next to the rocks, scattered on the floor and tucked away in the attic there’s some more. Heck, there’s even art hanging on the ceiling. So watch your head.
“We really don’t have any more space,” Wyatt says. “But that never stopped us.”
For a few months, anyway, the Hilliard Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette will help lighten that creative load via an exhibit titled, “Spiritual Journeys: Homemade Art from the Becky and Wyatt Collins Collection.” Museum staff along with art students at the university assisted in researching artists, restoring and cleaning certain pieces that might not have received marquee display status.
According to the brochure, the display is “an encyclopedic survey of vernacular Southern art …the very subjective and social constructions of cultural categories such as ‘self-taught,’ ‘outsider,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘folk’ and ‘visionary’ art forms. The diversity of materials and backgrounds represented in this exhibition forges a dynamic understanding of place.”
Sure, it’s all that, but hidden between that fancy, syllable-ridden, PR language is a love story — a testament to what blossoms when you share a hobby with your honey.
“Wyatt collects with his head and I collect with my heart,” Becky says. “It means he’s an expert, and I’m really not. Wyatt studies and spends hours researching.”
“I have studied contemporary folk art a lot, and do think I know a lot about it — the background of the artist, their collectability and value,” he says. “But Becky’s taste is something I respect. Her eye for a quality piece is something. She has a knack for it.”
Knack is one thing. Nerve is another. Luckily, Becky isn’t afraid to go the distance when hunting for an artistic gem. In fact, while the pieces within their collection are treasured, the true reasons for all this effort — for all those U-turns and unleaded fill ups on the weekends as they bounce from auctions to flea markets — are the free stories that come with the purchase.
“It’s more than the piece of folk art,” Becky says. “It’s noodling around to see if you can find obscure pieces, poking in boxes, peeking under tables. And once you find them, you learn about the artist and the motivation behind the work. Then they open up and [are] all so willing to share with you — share their life and their story. For all the years doing this, we’ve yet to meet any stinkers. There may not be any stinkers in the folk-art community, and if there are, we’ve been lucky enough to avoid them.”
The exhibit at the Hilliard Museum isn’t the first instance that the Collinses have loaned their folk art to a museum. In 2008, the Acadiana Center for the Arts formally displayed the collection in an exhibit called “From Inside Our Hearts: Outsider Art.” Then, in the spring of 2016, the Kentuck Art Center in Northport, Alabama hosted the Collins Collection for two months.
“We don’t have the money to buy a Picasso or a Renoir or what have you — because if I had that kind of money, we’d be collecting $51 million Warhols,” Wyatt says. “But this is something we never really did to have an exhibit someday, or to make money doing. This is just something we enjoyed doing together and have never stopped enjoying doing together.”