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A private collection goes public

Indian artworks donated to UALR on exhibit.

'ONE COW': Collage by Amiotte.
  • 'ONE COW': Collage by Amiotte.

The Sequoyah Research Center, an archive of Native American manuscripts and newspapers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, will be able to branch out into Indian visual art thanks to the donation of a large collection of contemporary artwork by retired chemistry professor J.W. Wiggins.

Wiggins has quietly collected American Indian art from Oklahoma, the northern plains, Canada and the Arctic for three decades, stashing the works in what he called a “modest house” near Broadmoor (it is now in storage at UALR). Starting today (Thursday, Oct. 19), a portion of the Wiggins Collection goes on exhibit in galleries I and II of the Fine Arts Building in conjunction with the opening of the Sequoyah Symposium on American Indian arts and letters on campus. Wiggins directed the installation of the show to reflect the way the paintings hung at his home — from floor to ceiling. “This is truly my show in the sense that I’m doing it exactly as I wanted,” he said. “As an art reviewer, you may not like it,” he added. We’ll see.

The collection is broad in geography and style, Wiggins said, and includes paintings by 144 artists, all contemporary. “None of it is older than I am,” the 66-year-old collector said. Much of the work features Indians and Indian themes, but not all of it is referential. “I collect work done by an Indian, not Indian subject matter,” he said.

To kick off the exhibit and symposium, Lakota Sioux artist Arthur Amiotte, who works in collage, will give a talk at 4:30 p.m. today in the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall, also in the Fine Arts Building, and will be part of a panel discussion, “Collecting and the Collector’s Role,” at 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20. The lecture is free, but reservations are required.

Wiggins said it was Chancellor Joel Anderson’s idea to donate the collection to UALR for use by the Sequoyah Center, now located in the Ottenheimer Library but which Anderson has said will get its own facility. “At my death they will get practically everything in my house,” Wiggins said, including his entire art collection, his library on American Indian art and his papers, including exhibit catalogs. Wiggins has kept information on provenance for each painting, and said he wants UALR to hire an Indian art historian and curator who could guide students in research on Indian art using his collection.

Wiggins can thank the Sequoyah Center’s Dr. Daniel Littlefield for his collecting career. Littlefield, who with Dr. Jim Parins created Sequoyah and its forerunner, the Native American Press Archives, suggested to Wiggins that he visit the Five Civilized Tribes Museum if he were ever near Muscogee, Okla. In 1974 Wiggins was, and did.

“I really did like the art, so I began to go to all their shows, and every now and then I would buy a piece of art,” he said. On one visit he was asked about his collection, he said. “I told them no, I wasn’t a collector. Collectors to me were rich people. Then finally I began to notice there were quite a few of them accumulating.” He began to read whatever he could find — which at the time wasn’t much — on American Indian art. Art Allen, professor of art at UALR at the time, advised Wiggins to “focus” — hence the geographical limits to the collection.

The work includes abstracted figurative work, naive work (including paintings by the late Canadian Inuit artist Luke Anguhadluq, who began his art career in his 70s), narrative ledger drawings (including work by Tom Haukaas) and work in other styles. One of Amiotte’s collages in the exhibit, “One Cow,” pastes drawings of touring stylized, stiff and smiling Indians against a photograph of the French countryside. They are with the Buffalo Bill touring show, and their car is inscribed “This place reminds us of home at Pine Ridge. Their cows are different.”
The UALR Art Department is holding the art currently. If UALR does not come through in building a facility for the Sequoyah Center, “there’s a possibility they’ll lose my collection,” Wiggins said. But the master development plan for UALR calls for the Sequoyah Center to be erected at an unspecified time in the future. 

 The 2006 Delta National Small Prints Exhibition opens today (Oct. 19) in the Fowler Center’s Bradbury Gallery at Arkansas State University with a reception at 5 p.m.

Judith Hecker, assistant curator in the department of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was juror for the 11th annual show. She selected 52 small-scale prints — ranging from 5 by 3 inches to 22 by 28 inches — by 48 artists, including woodcuts, linoleum cuts, etchings, lithographs, screen prints and digital prints.

The works are submitted to the juror anonymously, so ASU is pretty proud that three of its faculty and one student have work in the show. Printmaker Shelley Gipson, graphic artist Neil Matthiessen and sculptor John Salvest from the faculty are exhibiting work in the show. Kelli Langston, an art major, is also showing work.

The show runs through Nov. 17. A full color catalog of the show will be available at the exhibition. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 870-972-2567 for more information.


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