Loading...

Women artists who marry fellow artists typically find there are advantages and disadvantages, and one challenge is to establish a separate identity. Elaine de Kooning is a classic example of a woman who developed a career different from her husband as a portraitist and writer for ArtNews, while at the same time benefiting from his summer at Black Mountain College. Mildred Bernice Nungester and Karl Wolfe were another married pair of artists, and while he was a successful portraitist, she experimented with and mastered a variety of media, including portraiture and landscape painting, printmaking, and mosaics.

Nungester was a native of Celina, Ohio, but grew up in Decatur, Alabama, beginning at age four. In 1932 she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Alabama College, State College for Women in Montevallo (now the University of Montevallo). Unable to support herself as an artist, she taught English and Latin in Alabama for ten years while studying during the summers at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. She met Karl Wolfe at the Dixie Art Colony in Wetumpka, Alabama, during its first year in 1937. Of the colony’s founder, John Kelly Fitzpatrick, she wrote: “he was to have a profound influence on my life.” She described the colony as a “fun place. I was in my early twenties and had never had such a good time before…. None of this interfered with the serious business of drawing and painting.” In 1944 Nungester attended and received a Master of Fine Arts from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where she reconnected with Karl, who was stationed at Lowry Field in Denver. They married in Colorado following her graduation, and later moved to Jackson, Mississippi.

Together with Marie Hull and William Hollingsworth, the Wolfes were active in the Mississippi Art Association. Karl took a position at Millsaps College in Jackson, following Hollingsworth’s death in 1944 and remained there for ten years, while Mildred developed art history courses at the college. In 1948 they, together with Caroline Compton, established the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a hotel in Way, Mississippi, and the colony thrived there for fifteen years before changing locations several more times over the following decades. It attracted such notable artists as Lamar Dodd and John McCrady as instructors. The setting was picturesque and ideal for plein air painting, and nurtured diversions such as boating and swimming. The surroundings made an impression on her, and no doubt many of her fresh landscapes were done there.

A small kiln caused a fire in the Wolfes’ Jackson 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.

 

In 1988 she undertook a portrait of her friend Eudora Welty, based on studies she had done earlier. “I had decided to paint a watercolor portrait, which wouldn’t take much of her time. She came out to the studio with a book on Chekhov, a biography. She sat reading it, not looking up, laughing at what she was reading, and every now and then making a comment to me with a glance and a twinkle in her eye. The result was a very immediate and intimate portrait, done all on the spot.” The oil version is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Two years later Mildred Nungester Wolfe was named the Distinguished Mississippi Woman Artist by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She continued painting several days a week until the age of 92, when she was unable to continue doing so. She died peacefully at home four years later, in 2009, the same year the Wolfe Studio was awarded the Governor’s Award for Artistic Excellence in the Visual Arts.