In Memoriam: Mississippi artist Mildred Nungester Wolfe, 96

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Mildred Nungester Wolfe, a Jackson artist for more than a half-century whose evocative landscapes in oil and watercolor captured Mississippi’s regional beauty, has died following a long illness. She was 96.

Wolfe’s family said she had been in failing health since October 2004 when she was hospitalized with congestive heart disease. Until that time, she had continued to paint at her home and studio.

The family said she was at home at the time of her death. Plans for services are incomplete.

One of Wolfe’s best known paintings was her portrait of Eudora Welty, the Jackson writer who was a close friend, which she painted for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was one of three portraits she painted of Welty; the others were displayed at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and at the state Department of Archives and History in Jackson.

Her other works have been displayed throughout the South, notably in the Municipal Art Gallery in Jackson and the Mississippi Museum of Art, but also in banks, public buildings and doctors’ offices, as well as tucked away in private homes.

“I care about the beauty,” she said in an earlier interview. “I just look for the beautiful.”

What interested her were flowering shrubs, towering pines, riverbanks, and rolling farmland, as well as children, back yards, and blossoming trees. She said she was influenced by the European masters, the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists, but she would have nothing to do with the abstract distortions of modern art.

Although primarily an oil and watercolor artist, she worked in a wide range of media, including ceramics and glass. Among her monumental pieces were stained glass windows in the Baptist Church in Hazlehurst and the Belhaven College art center in Jackson. Mosaics depicting the Stations of the Cross, created in 1958-9 for St. Richard’s Catholic Church in Jackson, were featured in a special exhibition in 2004 at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

She was the widow of Karl Wolfe, prominent portrait painter of governors and other distinguished Mississippians. He died in 1984. Their studio, surrounded by woods off Interstate 55 in north Jackson, continues to be operated by their daughter Bebe, also an artist. The studio recently received the Mississippi’s 2009 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and the presentation ceremony is planned later this month.

When the Wolfes moved there in 1946, it was two miles past the last transit stop outside town. Now it is a single acre of woods surrounded by paved urban developments and highway interchanges.

Mildred Wolfe was born Aug. 23, 1912, in Celina, Ohio, but grew up in Decatur, Ala., where her father was a pharmacist. In the depths of the Depression, at the age of 19, she graduated from Alabama College in Montavallo and, finding no way to support herself as a female artist, taught Latin and English in Alabama schools for 10 years. During summers, she continued to paint and studied at places like the Chicago Art Institute and the Art Students League in New York.

She and Karl, a native Mississippian, met in 1937 during one of the summer sessions at the Dixie Art Colony outside Montgomery, Ala. They married in 1944 after meeting again in Colorado where she was studying for a master of fine arts at Colorado College and he was posted by the Air Force as a graphic artist at Lowery Field.

Although both had successfully shown their works in prestigious galleries in the East, they settled down at their Jackson studio and became mainstays in the Mississippi art world, establishing themselves as regional artists focusing on the world around them.

While Karl Wolfe’s forte was portraits, Mildred Wolfe concentrated on flowering landscapes and neighborhood scenes, although she too accepted commissions for portraits, especially children. She was always interested in nature, and in Alabama had painted so many mules she picked up the nickname “Muledrid.”

As styles turned toward abstract expressionism, both Wolfes stopped competing in juried exhibitions and concentrated on Mississippi subjects.

“I’ve always told everybody, more or less, to thine own self be true,” she said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do. That’s why I didn’t go into abstraction or anything else that I was not really interested in, just to get in shows.”

She and her husband both taught at Millsaps College, Karl in the studio and Mildred as an instructor of art history, until he reached retirement age in 1968 and she lost her job too.

At their studio, they worked in a variety of mediums, including water color, oils, ceramics and sculpture. In the 1950s, using a cast-off kiln, they started firing brightly glazed birds which still attract people from across the country every year for the annual Christmas sale at the studio.

That little kiln caught fire in 1963 and in a catastrophic blaze burned down the whole studio and destroyed a trove of paintings and artworks. Her space in the old studio never did have adequate light, and the replacement that they built gave her more room with wall-to-wall northern windows.

Quiet and reserved, she was often relegated to the background of the boisterous world of her husband and his fellow artists. In 1978, for example, she was not included – although her husband was – in a comprehensive exhibition of art in the state.
By 1994, however, her reputation had come into its own and she, along with Karl, was featured in a major retrospective show at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

A book on her life and work, heavily illustrated with color plates, is currently in production at University Press of Mississippi.

Survivors include one son, Michael Wolfe of Wilmington, N.C., and one daughter, Bebe Wolfe of Jackson; two granddaughters; and one great granddaughter and one great grandson.

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