Bebe Wolfe remembers having clay thrust into her tiny hands as a child growing up in Jackson. She was raised with artists as parents — artists who contributed both tangibly and intangibly to her community and state with their talents. Now Bebe carries on the Wolfe family business, a legacy celebrated by the Mississippi Museum of Art until October.
Mildred Nungester and Karl Wolfe were already accomplished artists when they met at the Dixie Art Colony in Wetumpka, Ala., in 1933. Mildred, who was born in Ohio and grew up in Decatur, Ala., went on to study at the Art Students League in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where she received a Master of Fine Arts. Karl, born and raised in Mississippi, had attended the Chicago Institute of Art as well.
They joined forces in 1944 when they married and built Wolfe Studio in Jackson two years later. Children and countless works of art later, the Wolfes with their daughter Elizabeth (“Bebe”) have become one of the state’s most influential art families. Their art and their legacy are the subjects of an exhibition currently on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.
Karl became a sought-after portraitist, painting Mississippi governors and first ladies, as well as Jackson’s elite. Mildred, whose painting of Eudora Welty hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., enjoyed working with many other media as well: mosaics, ceramics, prints and stained glass.
Together, she and Karl not only contributed numerous works to Jackson’s public spaces, but also were deeply involved in shaping the state’s art community.
“The Wolfes were teachers at Millsaps College as well as active participants in Allison’s Wells Art Colony, the Municipal Art Gallery and the Mississippi Art Association,” said Kathleen Varnell, curator of exhibitions at the Mississippi Museum of Art. “Perhaps the most notable artworks produced by the studio today are the beloved Wolfe birds. Each bird is unique and individually hand-glazed in a beautiful array of colors.”
Those birds, according to Bebe, came from what most great inventions do: necessity. In an effort to draw people to their gallery and studio, which was well outside of Jackson city limits at that time, the Wolfes put to use a ceramic kiln given to them by Karl’s sister.
“The story that my mother always told me is that they would make enough things to have a show at the Municipal Gallery before Christmas every year,” said Bebe. “They were making some thistles, handmade things, jars with lids and things like that, and my father made a little jar that had a bird on the lid, and everybody loved the little bird. So he got the idea of just making birds and dispensing with the jar.”
The birds were an immediate hit and became the “nucleus” of subsequent Christmas shows, according to Bebe.
“They were happy to have something that was small and colorful and affordable and attractive as a draw for people to come to the studio,” she said. “My mother sold her paintings out of the studio, so when someone would come in search of a bird, they would see a painting they liked, and she would let people pay installments over the course of a year for a painting they couldn’t normally afford. My mother’s portraits — she painted one about every month — were the mainstay of the income.”
Bebe, who was given clay at a very young age and encouraged to pursue art by her parents, eventually became a large part of the bird-making process in addition to her own painting. After her father died in 1984, she returned to Mississippi with then-fiancé David Weidemann to help her mother, Mildred, run Wolfe Studio. Bebe and David later purchased the adjoining property and built a home just up the hill, something that has contributed to Bebe’s love for working at the studio even after her mother’s death at age 96 in 2009.
“It still has a feeling of a sanctuary that it always did, and I love living here,” Bebe said. “It’s part of the reason that I’ve maintained the studio — it allows me to be here.”
And maintaining the studio today means something very different from what it did in the 1980s when Bebe returned home. The growth to today’s team of artists began in the early 1990s with Linda Bartling.
Having had an interest in art her entire life and a long love of the Wolfes’ work, Bartling frequented the studio on Old Canton Road. She would chat casually with Mildred about her own calligraphy and silhouette-cutting work. Soon after Mildred commissioned Bartling to calligraph a poem Karl had written for her — using Wolfe birds as payment — Mildred asked Bartling to join her and Bebe at the studio full time. Bartling quickly learned how to make Wolfe birds and greet and wait on customers.
“I did a lot of things for her that allowed her to do the things she loved the most, and that was paint,” Bartling said. “She painted tons of landscapes. She would just immerse herself in whatever she was painting — it was like she was going into the painting and making it come alive. We just made a nice little team.”
Wolfe Studio began yet another new phase in 2001 when Bebe and David fully took over management, beginning the second generation of the studio’s life.
“Wolfe Studio is among Mississippi’s longest running art studios in the state which won the Governor’s Award for Artistic Excellence in the Visual Arts in 2009,” Varnell said. “Its rural charm has been a place of exceptional artistic energy and creativity for decades.”
Though Wolfe birds continue to get their original shapes from Bebe, nearly a dozen local artists now contribute to the process as well.
“These decorative ceramic birds are produced by a slip casting method, but no two birds are alike,” Varnell said. “They are decorated by a variety of artisans in the studio who offer invaluable talents and creativity.”
In addition to birds, Wolfe Studio produces custom nativity sets and handmade prints from Mildred’s original blocks — two specialties of Wendy Eddleman, a skilled printmaker who began working at Wolfe Studio in 2000.
“Right now, the size of the studio really works because it’s enough people to take care of most of the work that needs to get done. Everyone brings their own special skill to what they’re doing and really, it’s great. It’s collective,” Bebe said. “Wendy and Linda have done us a lot of good. They were the first to work with my mother and me.”
And a quarter of a century later, Bartling still works a few hours each week at the studio.
“I just can’t give it up,” she said. “All of that enriched my life in really a sweet way. I loved Mildred. I felt like it was a beautiful friendship, both ways.”
Bartling remembers a friend who was quiet, focused, loyal and, above all, determined.
“Starting a career as an artist may not be as challenging in the new millennia as it was in the 1930s and 1940s,” said Varnell, “But through the legacy of the Wolfe family, young Mississippi artists have a chance to realize the importance of education, perseverance and hard work.”
Preparing for the exhibition has been a reflective experience, especially for Mildred and Karl’s only daughter.
“It’s different to tell somebody’s story when they’re gone. You kind of can do it from a different perspective,” Bebe said. “It brings them to life more to me, and in a way that feels really right. It just feels right. I know they would love it too, but it means a lot to me as well.”
The Wolfe Family Legacy exhibition will run until Oct. 1 at the museum, 380 S. Lamar St., in downtown Jackson.