ISONVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Out in the mountains just a stone’s throw from where she grew up, you can usually find Minnie Adkins, 86, sitting in a recliner holding a knife.
With a towel on her lap and a soft piece of wood in one hand, the elderly but spunky woman whittles until the faces of foxes, bears, cows and blue roosters take form in front of her.
As the slivers fall around her, it’s easy to think she’s going to whittle the pieces down to nothing. Then, almost like a sketch forming on the page, ears, feet, feathers and eyes emerge.
It’s not just a carving, it’s a character.
It’s her detail and decades-old whittling technique she mastered as a child that has taken her name and her craft from the Eastern Kentucky mountains to museums, libraries and homes throughout the country.
Adkins answered the phone immediately when I called her at her home near Isonville on a rainy morning in late August. When I asked her if I could set up a time to speak to her, she kindly told me now was as good a time as any. After a couple of pleasantries, her friendly voice and smooth mountain dialect took me back in time to her early life in Appalachia.
Adkins is a natural-born, self-taught artist, but that’s not what she set out to be. Eight decades ago, she was just a little girl who wanted toys of her own.
Her family farmed and lived a lifestyle where anything they wanted they needed to create themselves. So at the ripe, young age of 5, she convinced her favorite uncle to let her use his knife so that she could make toys.
“Back when I growed up, they didn’t have toys to play with and stuff,” she told me. “I’d make slingshots, and I’d make bow and arrows. We made pop guns.”
She finished the eighth grade and half of high school before she got married at the age of 18.
Even after she grew too old for toys, whittling was always part of her life.
She had a warm, matter-of-factness about her as we talked about her career. When she first started giving people her whittlings, many folks just tossed them in trash cans or tucked them away. She didn’t realize the true value of her work until she visited an art gallery in Morehead back in the mid-’80s.
Looking at the carvings in their gallery, she thought she could do better.
And she did.
In the late ‘80s she was featured in American screenwriter Millard Lampell’s O, Appalachia: Artists of the Southern Mountains, and that’s where her recognition really took off.
Now her work appears in permanent collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the American Folk Art Museum and the Kentucky Folk Art Centre, among others.
That recognition, though, couldn’t whittle away at her genuineness and generosity, even if it tried. When I spoke with author Mike Norris, who Adkins has published four children’s books with, he was brimming with stories of kindness and sharing art with others. Adkins helped found A Day in the Country, an art fair that started at her own home and brought in people from all over the country to buy directly from other Appalachian artists.
She was known for wearing her carvings on leather straps as necklaces, Norris told me, and when strangers would compliment her on one, she’d take it off and give it to them. Then she’d pull another one out of her purse and start the whole generous ritual again.
The author-illustrator team first met at Centre College in Danville back when the author and songwriter was still working a day job in public relations for the school. He’d been picked to show Adkins and her late husband around the college in 1992, partially because they needed someone to do it, but mostly because the two shared a common tie to Eastern Kentucky.
Their connection was almost immediate.
Later he shared a cassette tape with her of a song he’d written about a blue rooster, and as Adkins and I chatted on the phone, she told me, she wished he hadn’t done it. She couldn’t shake that image from her mind, so she carved a blue rooster a little more than a foot tall and had it shipped to his home.
Then another character from the song, a three-legged hog, showed up on his doorstep.
And when the artist decided to carve the song’s “no-count” dog - an Eastern Kentucky term for a lazy, good for nothing animal - she sent him two and let him decide which was the most “no-count” looking.
That’s how their children’s books filled with his eastern Kentucky ballads and photos her folk art carvings were born.
They’ve published four since they first teamed up nearly three decades ago - “Bright Blue Rooster,” “Sonny the Monkey,” “Mommy Goose: Rhymes from the Mountains” and, most recently, “Ring Around the Moon” in 2019.
She never really imagined she’d have her work in books, and the artist gives Norris much of the credit for the ones they’ve been able to put on the shelves.
“I don’t even know about making books and stuff, I just know about whittling,” she told me as we spoke on the phone. “I don’t know about big stuff like that, and he does, if it hadn’t been for him there wouldn’t have been no books.”
It’s hard to know how many wooden scraps have fallen into her lap over the decades or even how many pieces she’s carved. Counting at this point really doesn’t matter, she said, because she’s not slowing down. A small piece can take about 45 minutes, and a larger one can take several days. She still works six days a week, and she still finds the same joy in carving that she did as a child.
So much so, that’s how she’s spent most of her time since the COVID-19 shutdown began in March. She’s used her isolation to carve out their next project - 180 characters for their fifth book. That’s a labor-intensive feat by itself, but at Adkins’ age? Norris says it’s remarkable.
And her work just keeps getting better.
“I think the carving that she’s done on this most recent book, it’s my favorite of any,” Norris said. “She’s doing more with their arms and their hands. They’re more expressive, and they’re more difficult to make. I think as an artist she’s continued to grow to this day.”
Originally they planned to do seven books, but planning and doing are two different things. Norris told me it takes roughly three years to get from the first words and whittles to the store shelves.
They’re well aware that Adkins is 86 and still has two more installments to go.
As our conversation ended and Adkins and I said our goodbyes on the phone, she encouraged me to stop by and say hello if I’m ever out in Eastern Kentucky. She insisted that I put Minnie Adkins Day - which is always the third Saturday in July - on my calendar. Elliott County hosts a big art festival in her honor every year.
That’s just the kind of person she is.
And while Norris and Adkins both wondered out loud to me whether they’d actually get to that seventh book they planned for, I thought back to one of the first things Adkins told me on the phone.
She started carving when she was just 5 years old.
Age was never an obstacle for Adkins, and looking at the photos of the 180 carvings she did in the shutdown, it certainly isn’t now.
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