Karl Ferdinand Wolfe was a prolific portraitist and vital participant in and champion of two southern art colonies: Dixie Art Colony, located for fourteen years near Wetumpka in central Alabama and Mississippi Art Colony, first founded at the Allison’s Wells Hotel in Way, Mississippi.  Both nurtured regional talent and attracted prominent artists such as Lamar Dodd and Anne Goldthwaite as instructors.

Wolfe was born in 1904 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and when he was ten years old, his father moved the family to Columbia for his logging business. Young Wolfe began working at the logging camp at age thirteen. Choosing to focus on art, he attended Soule Business College in New Orleans to earn  a degree in bookkeeping so that his parents would allow him to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked tirelessly on portraiture, studying under Helen Gardner, Laura van Pappelendam, Alan Philbrick, and Fred de Forrest Schook. In 1928, the fourth and final year of his studies, Wolfe received a William R. French Travelling scholarship which he used to tour Europe. 

Returning to the United States, he settled in Jackson, Mississippi, and began his career as a portraitist. In total he painted eight hundred likenesses of distinguished individuals such as governors and justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court. They were sensitive, empathetic, and naturalistic depictions of his sitters.

Under the auspices of the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department, a New Deal program, in 1938 Wolfe painted a mural titled Crossroads for the post office in Louisville, Mississippi. Depicting  a theme familiar to him from childhood, it includes  three men shown laboring in a rural farmyard setting. Starting in 1942 Wolfe began serving in the Army Air Corps and worked as an assistant to a Chinese officer who became a close friend and confidant. He was assigned to work as a photographer at Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado. Once discharged in 1944, Wolfe married fellow Dixie Art Colony artist Mildred Nungester who was working on her master’s degree in Colorado Springs. Soon after their wedding they moved to a plot of land in Jackson, Mississippi, on which they built a studio and home.

During the decades that followed, Wolfe was a successful portraitist; he also worked in ceramic, watercolor, and mosaic. With Marie Hull and William Hollingsworth, Wolfe was active in the Mississippi Art Association which eventually evolved into the Mississippi Museum of Art. Beginning in 1944 he replaced Hollingsworth in the art department at Millsaps College. Years later, in an address to the faculty, Wolfe opined: “Skill is not what we want in an artist—we want soul, and next to soul, thought…at Millsaps we reach for the highest level…in reaching we stretch and enlarge our souls.” The Mississippi Art Colony, which he helped found  in 1948, has moved four times throughout its history and continues to thrive, now in Lake Tiak-O’Khata, Louisville, Mississippi. He also attended summer art sessions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

A small kiln caused a fire in the Wolfes’ home studio in 1963, destroying the building and a trove of paintings, artworks, and supplies. A new studio was built the following year and, under the guidance of their daughter, continues to show works from the Wolfe family as well as works from local artists. The Wolfe Studio was awarded the 2009 Governor’s Award for Artistic Excellence in the Visual Arts. A retrospective show at the Jackson Arts Festival of the Junior League and the Art Association took place shortly before his death in 1985 and listed over seven hundred of his portraits—a true testament of his legacy.