When Dr. Jim Owens, a longtime history professor at Lynchburg College, died in August of 2017, he bequeathed to the College a large and eclectic collection of artwork.
Of the approximately 300 pieces, many fall into the category of southern outsider folk art. “Outsider” art has been described as self-taught, visionary, naïve, and intuitive. The Owens collection includes work by a number of celebrated southern outsider folk artists, among them Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, Annie Tolliver, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth.
Some of the pieces are whimsical, like Annie Tolliver’s toothy turquoise fish. Other artists — Finster, for example — incorporated religious themes into their work, along with fantastical images of spaceships and flying animals. In Sudduth’s case, he sometimes painted with mud or motor oil on discarded objects, like doors.
“There are some unique things in this collection,” Laura Meisner ’17, graduate assistant at the Daura Gallery, said. “At first, it was a little overwhelming, but it’ll be fun to go through.”
Dr. Owens, who taught at Lynchburg for nearly 50 years, had been collecting art for decades. In addition to southern outsider folk art, his collection includes African masks and sculptures, Native American and southern pottery, and a variety of decorative items, prints, drawings, and paintings. “He was an eclectic collector,” Dr. Barbara Rothermel, director of the Daura Gallery, said, adding, “We’ve just sorted through it. We haven’t been able to fully catalog everything.”
Dr. Rothermel said she had talked with Dr. Owens on occasion about his artwork and that he was a “very strong supporter of the gallery.” She said she “knew he had some fine pieces,” but had “absolutely no idea” of the extent of the collection until it was bequeathed to the College. “There are a variety of genres, a variety of mediums, and a variety of styles,” she said. “[It’s] all over the place. As I said, eclectic.”
This summer, Dr. Rothermel and Meisner will be working to inventory, photograph, examine, and research the Owens collection. The process could take more than a year. “Everyone sees the finished product, but they don’t see the months of work that go into it behind the scenes, working with the collection,” Dr. Rothermel said. “Before we exhibit anything, we have to determine its condition. Does it need to be reframed? Does it need conservation treatment? Attribution and authenticity are very, very important, and sometimes that requires an outside expert.”
Meisner, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership Studies at Lynchburg, admitted she knew nothing about outsider folk art before working on the Owens collection this past academic year with student workers Shelby Miller ’18 and Will Tharp ’19.
As she digs into the boxes and stacks of artwork this summer, however, she imagines she’ll gain more of an understanding and appreciation. “Art that I think I might not be a fan of at first, the more I research and get to know about it, the more I like it,” she said. “It’s like that with most things.”