New Paltz

Benjamin Wigfall, Things My Father Told Me, Tall Man II, 1971, intaglio and relief print on paper, 271⁄2 × 391⁄2".

Benjamin Wigfall, Things My Father Told Me, Tall Man II, 1971, intaglio and relief print on paper, 271⁄2 × 391⁄2".

“Benjamin Wigfall & Communications Village”

In 1973, Benjamin Wigfall (1930–2017) purchased a renovated livery stable in Ponckhockie, a primarily working-class Black neighborhood in Kingston, New York, to use as his studio. An admired printmaking professor at the State University of New York (SUNY), New Paltz—the artist was known for his innovative engraving techniques, such as “burning,” or mark-making with a red-hot tool—he often traveled to Ponckhockie to conduct oral-history interviews with its residents at the local Baptist church and knew the place well. The conversations were part of his “audiographic” practice of speaking with “ordinary people . . . about ordinary things from their own experiences,” as he put it, and then incorporating parts of these exchanges into his vibrant paintings and prints (see, for example, the intaglio pieces he made, which were inspired by his talks with an elderly Kingston denizen known as Mango). The project was also a way of preventing historical amnesia and building community: He learned that many of Ponckhockie’s inhabitants had migrated from the Carolinas and Virginia (Wigfall had been born in the commonwealth’s capital, Richmond), and he soon realized that collaboration with them and their families was key to the preservation of their stories. Instead of keeping the large brick building—which still exists today—to himself, Wigfall invited local teenagers to join him for workshops. He christened the space “Communications Village,” and for a decade, neighborhood youths learned how to make prints, take photographs, write poetry, conduct interviews, and so much more.

In 1977, Wigfall described his drive as an artist and educator with the question “How can I best utilize me?” This query reverberated throughout “Benjamin Wigfall & Communications Village,” a packed two-in-one show held at SUNY New Paltz, where he taught from 1963 to 1991. One way he attempted to utilize himself was by inviting artists at various stages of their careers to Communications Village—including Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Betty Blayton, Ernest Crichlow, Jayne Cortez, Melvin Edwards, Ernest Frazier, Charles Gaines, Mavis Pusey, Everett Winrow, and Robert Blackburn (whose pioneering printmaking workshop, which opened in New York City in 1947, served as a touchstone), as well as members of the SUNY New Paltz art community, such as Pat Jow Kagemoto and Joseph Ramos. All who came were likely enticed by the opportunity to make prints but most ended up taking an interest in the kids and sometimes created work about them.

The show, fittingly, served as Wigfall’s first-ever retrospective. It opened with the artist’s early works: paintings, assemblages, prints, and drawings, all of which were primarily abstract, except for The House on 30th Street, 1947–49, a pen-and-ink drawing depicting a home in the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond, where Wigfall was raised. The exhibition also shed light on his educational path from Virginia’s Hampton Institute (now called Hampton University, where he taught between 1954 and 1963) to Yale University and the training imparted there by his mentor Gabor Peterdi. Displacement, racism, and alienation are a few of the key themes found in his essential audiographic pieces, especially the series “Things My Father Told Me,” 1971–73, which features transcribed texts that describe the violence wrought by slavery and the resultant gaps in family histories. Having the audio present with the work was important to Wigfall; here, one could listen to segments of his father speaking via QR code.

Following a middle section dedicated to ephemera and prints made by artists and students at Communications Village, the final gallery presented an unrealized exhibition Wigfall proposed to SUNY in 1968 on the “visual expressions unique to Black communities.” Expertly produced by the show’s guest curators, Sarah Eckhardt and Drew Thompson, this finale expanded upon the artist’s artistic and social project, displaying a range of pieces by different artists, including Andrews’s studies for his large-scale painting Sexism, 1974; stunning abstract works by Blayton and Pusey; and one of Wigfall’s audiographic prints. A poignant tribute, the exhibition also helped to provide the fullest possible view of the artist through an approach that felt fresh, reparative, and generously site specific. The show’s next stop, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond this summer, will likely be another brilliant homecoming.