By Diana Mazzella
She’d been a model in New York and rubbed elbows with stars at Hollywood cocktail parties.
Things seemed so artificial, and she wanted to get back to her reality. As often happens with natives of the Mountain State who live far away, she longed for the mountains and the trees.
Ramona Lampell wanted to do something for Appalachia and thought the best way would be through the art because it’s universal. She drove through the region, stopping at filling stations, grocery stores and country fairs, looking for artists who were self-taught and dynamic, whose art was powerful in spirit and soul.
She said they made her feel the way you would looking at prehistoric cave drawings.
“Cave drawings are creative and wonderful in that they depict what is going on in the lives of their creators,” she said. “Self-taught artists draw on a well of creativity that also reflects their daily lives.”
Ramona’s husband, Millard, wrote of one of the artists that he was “innocent, but nobody’s fool.”
“They just needed to create,” Ramona said. “Most of us, if we listen to what’s inside of us, we will do something creative – whether it’s writing, whether it’s drawing or whether it’s, as we say in West Virginia, whittling.”
The art’s creators were self-taught, often turning to creativity after retirement or squeezing it in around jobs and family. Their work was inspired by nature. It was funny. It was wistful. And above all, it was honest.
For decades the Lampells collected the artwork – Ramona had galleries in Beverly Hills and East Hampton – and wrote a book, “O, Appalachia,” about the artists who made the work they collected. Millard wrote the book while Ramona served as curator and editor.
Through the couple’s book the artists became known outside of their communities and though often surprised at the interest, continued to create for the joy and purpose they had always had while whittling or painting.
“It’s been a fascinating experience around how the art is received, the self-taught art that I have collected, which is just dynamic and alive and just so incredibly good,” she said.
In the last few years, Lampell has given nearly 30 pieces of her collection to West Virginia University as well as the rights to her book and an unfinished documentary on artists in Appalachia, and she has promised other pieces in her collection to the Art Museum of WVU.
Joyce Ice, director of the Art Museum of WVU, said the Lampell Collection is “known nationally as one of the outstanding collections of its genre.”
“Ramona Lampell, who was born in West Virginia, wants her collection to stay in her home state and to be available, especially to young people whose Appalachian heritage it celebrates,” Ice said. “We are grateful to be able to share some selections from this collection at Blaney House and to have such an important collection eventually come to the Art Museum of WVU.”
Through collecting art, Lampell met the artists who for decades carved animals and faces, wove baskets, and painted scenes of common, visionary and spiritual events.
From sling shots to roosters
Minnie Adkins whittled popguns, slingshots, and bows and arrows as a child, providing herself with her own toys. Living in Isonville, Ky., Adkins has whittled throughout her life.
As an adult she whittled roosters and sold them at flea markets for 50 cents or a dollar. When she saw a wooden goat outside a consignment shop in Morehead, Ky., she told the owner she could make that sort of thing, too. And she did.
Her hands and knife have made long-necked horses that are blocky and straight like those in Celtic myth, wide-mouthed alligators, stately foxes and her favorite, roosters.
She’ll find forked sticks, making legs out of one prong and a head and tail on the other. No rooster is the same. Each depends on the shape of the stick and the personality she gives them.
She says it doesn’t take a lot of imagination. You just have to see the rooster in the trees.
“With these roosters, you see one of them prongs in the tree where you know you can make a rooster out of it,” Adkins said.
Then the Lampells found her. She made it into their book and became part of the fledgling documentary and collection, and her life was changed.
Now she says, you can find out about her just by typing her name in an Internet search bar.
“Ramona has done a lot for art and helped a lot of people to help themselves,” Adkins said.
Through her exposition of Appalachian art, Ramona wanted to share the glories she saw from a place where what happens today is what matters. She wanted all the people she met in the outside world who looked down at her Appalachian roots to see the truth that she saw.
“I wanted to do this project so the people at the bottom of the mountains would have respect for the people at the top of the mountains and the people at the top of the mountains would have respect for themselves and all the wonderful things they do with their lives,” Ramona said.
Many of the artists depicted in O, Appalachia have died. And of the artists featured in documentary footage shown at WVU’s Blaney House from Ramona’s collection, Adkins is the only one living and still working – at the age of 79.
As West Virginia and Appalachia have transformed in the decades leading into the 21st century, so too has the art.
This means that the Appalachian artist experience is changing, too, and that it's unlikely that people are creating just like Adkins and her counterparts did, leaving Lampell’s collection as the chief expression of a cultural era for generations to come.
The children’s room
Before Ramona’s husband died and she moved to Florida, she had a room dedicated to her grandchildren and their friends. They could enter the house and go in the room whenever they liked to paint, draw or otherwise let their creativity flow.
In that room she wanted them to express a creativity that was solely their own. Now she’d like to do the same for the children of West Virginia with her gifts to the Art Museum of WVU. She wants them to tap into their own feelings and spirit as they create.
She believes the museum and its use of her collected art can give them an understanding of a shared cultural past and art that is otherwise often lost behind the artifice of templates and techniques.
“The museum is going to help the children of Appalachia to create from their spirit and their soul instead of from someone else’s eyes about what’s good and what isn’t,” Lampell said.
Lampell’s promised gift was made in conjunction with A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University. The $750 million comprehensive campaign being conducted by the WVU Foundation on behalf of the University runs through December 2015.