Arts & Culture

Collector’s folk art finds home in Pittsboro

The Small B&B Cafe in Pittsboro displays a large array of folk art both indoors and outdoors. Jim Massey donated the large Elvis seen on the side of a sitting area. The Small Museum of Folk Art, housing Massey’s collection, will also be on the property.
The Small B&B Cafe in Pittsboro displays a large array of folk art both indoors and outdoors. Jim Massey donated the large Elvis seen on the side of a sitting area. The Small Museum of Folk Art, housing Massey’s collection, will also be on the property. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Jim Massey spent decades collecting folk art: R.A. Miller’s metal cutouts, Clyde Jones’ chainsaw-hewn critters, Sam “The Dot Man” McMillan’s spotted furniture, Jimmy Lee Suddeth’s mud finger paintings and Howard Finster’s self-portraits.

For years, Massey showed his collection to visitors to his Moncure daylily farm during its annual summer sales weekends. He even converted an 1800s post office into a gallery for his collection of more than 400 pieces of folk, outsider and visionary art.

Once the farm closed to the public in 2011, Massey was sad that the public didn’t get to see these artworks anymore. And at 75, he worried what would happen to the collection after he died.

Now an effort is underway to raise money to build a museum for Massey’s collection in downtown Pittsboro. He is working with Lisa Piper and Dave Clark, owners of the Small B&B Cafe and fellow outsider art enthusiasts.

“It’s a lot better than my dying here and somebody coming out and having a yard sale,” said Massey, seated at the farm and gazing out at rows of red, orange, yellow and purple daylilies.

The proposed Small Museum of Folk Art will be located next to Piper and Clark’s bed-and-breakfast and restaurant, a couple blocks off Pittsboro’s traffic circle. A donated 8-foot-by-40-foot building was delivered Friday. They are holding fundraising events, including on Sept. 25, to help finish the project.

“Pittsboro is a great location,” said JJ Bauer, a lecturer and visual resources curator at the University of North Carolina’s art department. Bauer cites ClydeFest, the annual Chatham County celebration of the Bynum artist, Fearrington’s annual Folk Art Festival and the community’s support for the museum project so far.

Forming friendships

Massey grew up in central Texas and got his doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. For almost 30 years, Massey was either the curator or director of the University of North Carolina’s Herbarium, a collection of dried plant specimens. An award-winning instructor, he also taught classes in the botany and biology departments as well as at the N.C. Botanical Garden.

About a decade before he retired in 2000, Massey started his daylily garden. A $5 clump of daylilies grew to 1,800 varieties, about 50 of which Massey named or introduced, including the lavender Mary McKee Felton cultivar, named for his longtime assistant at the herbarium. Since daylilies naturally multiply, Massey started a farm to sell the extras.

After seeing Bynum artist Clyde Jones’ wooden sculptures, Massey became intrigued by folk art about 20 years ago and began buying pieces on eBay.

“It’s like buying that one daylily,” he said.

Massey would attend the Fearrington’s annual Folk Art Show and Finster Fest in Summerville, Ga. He got to meet such artists as Finster, Big Chief and Miz Thang. For several years, he hosted a breakfast after the Fearrington show for the artists whom he had befriended over the years.

“Folk artists just intrigue me – the industry they have,” Massey said. “Many don’t care if they ever sold a piece of art; they’d get up and work.”

Bauer said Massey’s collection reflects his friendships with these artists; many of the pieces are dedicated to him or were commissioned by him. “That’s a good thing about the collection,” she said.

When Massey’s daylily farm was operating, he only sold flowers every weekend in June and July. Customers learned they could ask at checkout to see Massey’s folk art collection in the old 1800s post office. “When I closed the farm, it seemed terrible that nobody could see the work,” he said.

‘A good home’

Piper, 52, and Clark, 57, moved from Minneapolis to Pittsboro in 2011; they wanted to be within a three-hour drive of Piper’s parents in Williamsburg, Va. They had owned a casual farm-to-table restaurant in Minneapolis, so they decided to open a bed-and-breakfast and cafe in North Carolina; the Small B&B Cafe opened in December 2011.

The couple have long been fans of outsider art – collecting it, traveling to art festivals and visiting artists over the years. Like Massey, the couple was drawn to this artwork because it was accessible and the artists were so passionate about their work.

Massey originally approached the owners of Fearrington Village about taking over the collection. (Massey is adamant that he did not want to leave the collection to a university or public museum, fearing the collection would be used for one exhibition and then languish in storage.) When they turned him down, Fearrington’s special events coordinator Gilda McDaniel encouraged Massey to talk to the couple who she knew were fellow folks art lovers.

“It needed a good home and Dave and Lisa would give it a good home, McDaniel said.” Massey was reluctant at first, but when the three sat down together, the partnership clicked.

Then Piper and Clark got to see the collection. “I feel like a child every time I’m around all of them,” Piper said. Clark added: “We were initially blown away and we still are.”

That was two years ago. The couple has started a nonprofit, recruited board members (including McDaniel), held one fundraising event and are planning another. They got a donated building that will be a temporary solution and then become the basis for the museum after some renovation. They estimate that they need about $200,000 for building and operations. So far, they have raised $50,000 in cash donations and building materials, including the donated building.

Massey couldn’t be more pleased their efforts: “Dave and Lisa are wonderful, fantastic folks. Their hearts are in the right place.”

Small Museum of Folk Art

Want to help? There will be a fundraising event on Sept. 25 in Pittsboro featuring food prepared by Oakleaf restaurant, a chance to view a small exhibit of Jim Massey’s collection and an auction of artwork donated by local artists. Tickets cost $150 per couple or $100 for one person.

To inquire about tickets, call 919-642-3866 or email smallmuseumfolkart@gmail.com.

The museum will be next to the Small B&B Cafe, 219 East St., Pittsboro.

Info: smallmuseumfolkart.org, facebook.com/smallmuseumpittsboro

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