The Life and Legacy of Benjamin Wigfall: A Conversation with Dr. Sarah Eckhardt

By Kathleen Reid

Dr. Sarah Eckhardt

“No other artist’s story weaves so consistently through the warp and weft of both the museum’s acquisition program and its educational mission than that of Benjamin Wigfall,” says Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Wigfall (1930-2017) grew up in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood and first experienced the museum when he attended VMFA’s segregated classes in the spring of 1948.” Wigfall’s initial encounter with abstract art, a painting by Lyonel Feininger, was also at VMFA, an experience he remembered throughout his career as an important turning point in his artistic development. “One of my goals for this exhibition,” Sarah explains, “is to make Benjamin Wigfall a familiar name.” Eckhardt, along with her co-curator Dr. Drew Thompson, Associate Professor of Visual Culture and Black Studies at Bard Graduate Center, and co-organizing institution the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, have meticulously assembled an exciting exhibition entitled Benjamin Wigfall and Communications Village, which opens June 17, 2023.

Canvas played an important role in the exhibition’s genesis through the support of several generous donors to the “Access to Artists” fund, which provides VMFA curators with the resources to conduct interviews with living artists. Thanks to this fund, Sarah and community advocate, researcher, and writer Linda Holmes, traveled to New Paltz, New York in 2016 to meet with Benjamin Wigfall. In what was ultimately his last recorded interview, Wigfall shared invaluable details about his life as a child, a student, a teacher, a mentor, a community advocate, and—above all else—an artist. The oral history, as well as subsequent interviews and extensive research, not only informed the exhibition’s development but also shed new light on VMFA’s role in Wigfall’s development as an artist. Sarah’s essay in the exhibition catalogue explores the fascinating ways that Wigfall, early museum leaders like then-director Leslie Cheek, and other arts organizations navigated the limitations imposed by Virginia’s legal and educational systems during segregation.

Benjamin Wigfall’s early years in Church Hill formed the foundation of his art journey. During their 2016 interview, Sarah, who also lives in Church Hill, asked the artist numerous questions about growing up in Church Hill and how that community shaped his future as an artist. She notes, “To me, the biggest thing about this story is the importance of art education. In the 1940s and 1950s, VMFA was at the center of the professionalization of art education and providing access to art classes and higher learning was part of that effort.” During the time of segregation, Wigfall visited the museum regularly as a teenager, finding inspiration and ideas for his future art career.

Hard-working and driven, Wigfall painted abstract images, experimenting with color, form, and composition. He won two VMFA Fellowships to study at Hampton Institute (now University), in 1949 and 1951, followed by a fellowship from an anonymous donor in 1952 to fund his final year at Hampton. Additionally, VMFA awarded Wigfall a museum purchase prize for his painting Chimneys in 1951 during his second year at Hampton Institute, an unparalleled honor for such a young student. With this acquisition, Wigfall became the youngest artist to have a work enter the collection. “After acquiring Chimneys,” Sarah shared, “the museum purchased a second painting, Corrosion and Blue, in 1958. Thus, within a decade of coming to understand abstraction at VMFA, Wigfall had contributed two of his own abstract paintings to the museum’s collection.”

Spurred on by the incredible insights gained through her experience interviewing the artist, Sarah continued to delve into Wigfall’s history in collaboration with VMFA’s Senior Archivist, Courtney Tkacz, who searched for related materials in the museum’s archives. One highlight was Tkacz’s discovery of a glowing letter of recommendation written by Wigfall’s mentor, Leo Katz, Chair of the Art Department at Hampton. In the effusive letter endorsing his student as a VMFA fellowship applicant, Katz wrote of Wigfall, “It is hard to say if he lives in art or if art lives in him.”

In the Sunday Richmond Times Dispatch dated May 25, 1952, VMFA announced the newest winners of its fellowships. Sarah recalls her excitement the moment she and Tkacz uncovered this article, showing a headshot of young Benjamin Wigfall alongside that of renowned contemporary artist Cy Twombly, acknowledging both gentlemen as recent VMFA Fellowship recipients. Coincidentally, Benjamin Wigfall’s work will be on view at VMFA this summer, and Cy Twombly’s in the fall. Opening September 30, the exhibition Cy Twombly in Morocco will explore Twombly’s extended stay in the country from the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1953, which was made possible through his VMFA Fellowship. Canvas members should stay tuned for additional insider information and a fall event celebrating the show!

Wigfall’s painting entitled Chimneys captivated Sarah so much that she placed it on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It’s important to note that Wigfall explored several other art forms in his career. She explains, “Abstraction was Wigfall’s primary language throughout his career but when he was at Yale in 1954, his mentor Gabor Peterdi encouraged him to embrace printmaking as his primary medium.” Throughout his life, Wigfall was constantly refining his craft, finding new and innovative ways of expression. “Benjamin Wigfall wanted to create a cohesive model of art,” Sarah says. “In the late 1960s, he established Communications Village in the Ponckhockie neighborhood in Kingston New York.”

Communications Village, Sarah explains, was a model that was way ahead of its time. To understand this concept, Wigfall’s mission statement defines the purpose: “Communications Village was conceived to explore formats which orchestrate traditional art and survival activities into one total expression. Daily survival activities such as casual conversations, car driving, walking, cooking, fence building, have unconsciously but in a beautiful and profound way been used as communicative and esthetic expression as much as they have been used for their functional purposes. Communications Village seeks to provide new formats for expression by the public in such a way that the vitality, profundity and beauty of their lives is revealed to themselves and society.”

His work was revolutionary and forward-thinking. Sarah notes, “When I think about this art community, I recognize the importance of public policy and accessibility. His education was something he had worked very hard to achieve. Wigfall was trying to make art education accessible to a new generation of artists.”

Wigfall’s children, Gino Wigfall and Gia Wigfall Oke-Bello, wrote, “If everybody grew up the way we did, the world would be a better place. We were young at the time of Communications Village but sharing memories about our father with the participants at the opening of this exhibition [at the Dorsky Museum] reminded us that the actions that you take as one person can have a ripple effect.  You have no way of imagining the impact it is going to have on somebody. You can change a person’s whole trajectory, or their own self-concept can change, because of something you offer them.”

Thanks to the years of work and in-depth research done by co-curators Sarah Eckhardt and Drew Thompson, and countless collaborators at VMFA and the Dorsky, Benjamin Wigfall’s life and legacy can be explored and enjoyed at VMFA from June 17 through September 10, 2023.