In 1963, artist and printmaker Ben Wigfall was hired by SUNY New Paltz as its first African American professor of art. Wigfall was an excellent teacher who encouraged his students to explore creative possibilities and gave inspired, in-depth critiques. But well before his retirement in 1991, his true passion was to be found outside academia at Communications Village (CV), a printmaking facility that trained and employed local youth to assist distinguished, mostly African American artists make prints. Located in an abandoned mule barn that Wigfall had renovated with the help of local youths in downtown Kingston's Ponckhockie, a Black neighborhood, CV had a dark room where budding photographers could develop their prints. They could also learn filmmaking.
In a 2015 interview, Wigfall's wife, Mary, described how delighted the couple were to discover "a whole community of Black people" when they first drove over the Wurts Street Bridge in the early 1960s. Kingston's Rondout was a diverse, mainly working-class area that was about to be demolished by urban renewal.
Fortunately, Ponckhockie, a short distance away, was spared. After running CV in the 1970s and 1980s, Wigfall shifted his energies into a gallery he founded in the Rondout. The Watermark Cargo Gallery, which opened in 1988, was a stunning vehicle for Wigfall's curatorial talents, hosting exhibitions that beautifully showcased his collection of African art as well as the work of contemporary artists.
A soft-spoken, modest man, Wigfall was "doing what he loved," recalls his son, Gino. "He was all over the place and constantly thinking." Wigfall received a Special Citation Ulster County Executive Art Award in 2014 and died three years later at age 86. With each succeeding year his legacy has grown, thanks in large part to the efforts of Richard Frumess, founder and owner of R&F Handmade Paints and a cofounder of Kingston's Midtown Arts District and the Kingston Arts Commission. In 2019, the Idea Gallery, located in Midtown Kingston, hosted a show that juxtaposed pieces from Wigfall's African art collection with his own work, which few had seen, given that he never showed it.
An exhibition dedicated to Wigfall's art and print shop, "Ben Wigfall & Communication Village," opens at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art on September 10. Curated by Drew Thompson, associate professor in Africana and Historical Studies and director of Africana Studies at Bard College, the exhibition will survey Wigfall's multimedia work over four decades, including pieces from the collections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Hampton University, as well as display prints, photographs, and other ephemera documenting Communications Village. The show will break new ground in documenting a chapter of art history in the Hudson Valley "that hasn't been written yet," says Anna Conlan, director of the Dorsky. "The reason for Communications Village was that in the 1970s the art world was a white supremacist, deeply racist world. We're celebrating Ben's resilience and commitment."
CV played an essential role as an alternative space enabling artists of color to make and show their work, according to Thompson. "This was a subversive space, not recognized by the mainstream American art scene," he says, noting that artists such as Benny Andrews, Charles Gaines, Mel Edwards, and Betty Blayton-Taylor—some of whom have only recently gotten their due at major institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection—were shut out.
"The mentoring that he did with the youth of Communications Village," says Frumess, "opening horizons to them they would have never otherwise have envisioned, the tape recording of neighborhood conversations and sounds, the inclusion of his fellow artists—now many of them nationally or world famous—in his endeavors, his superb collection of African art that he exhibited in his Watermark/Cargo Gallery alongside the work of contemporary artists—all of this was also Ben Wigfall's art."
Wigfall was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1930. He attended a segregated school that didn't have an art teacher but while in high school took classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Wigfall attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), in Virginia, and was one of only three African American artists to be accepted into the Yale School of Design, earning an MFA in 1957. He was a professor of art at Hampton before being hired by SUNY New Paltz.
Initially, Ben was "a purist and abstractionist," notes Thompson, later incorporating text into his prints. Several of these "talking prints," a combination of aquatints and etchings, were included in the Idea Gallery show. Direct descendants of the griot, or African storyteller, the words, whose colloquialisms and shifts in scale and cases capture the cadences of speech, recount the fragmented stories and adventures of various relatives, dating back to slavery and the voyage from Africa.
Joe Ramos, who taught printmaking at SUNY New Paltz alongside Wigfall and took over the department upon his retirement, notes that back in the 1970s and 1980s, the college "was no place for artists of color. Ben was disillusioned about that and part of Communications Village was an answer," Ramos says. Wigfall took advantage of "grants available at the time to invest in underdeveloped areas," Ramos says. "Ben's idea of Communications Village could be considered radical at the time. He created inroads into the community and allowed an exchange." Wigfall initially encountered resistance. "Particularly back then, a black man who's going to purchase a building causes the eyes to go up a little," Ramos says. Despite the racist and hostile attitudes he encountered, Wigfall forged ahead in creating a gallery that vied with the best in New York City in terms of professionalism and quality of work, Ramos notes.
He showed distinguished artists such as Terry Adkins as well as alum and students from SUNY New Paltz, including Ramos, Maurice Brown, and Pat Jow Kagemoto, who helped out at CV for many years and made her own prints there. World-renowned sculptor Martin Puryear, who represented the US at the 2019 Venice Biennale, reportedly visited the gallery to buy African art.
"Communication is a weapon of survival. It is a way of finding commonality, a way of bridging the divisions between us, a way of broadening, enriching, educating," writes Frumess. "Communication was Ben's art, one that can be only partially captured by exhibiting his work. The whole of it can only be captured by using it as a tool to build relationships with the broad community." In the crucible of a racist society, Ben Wigfall forged a new vision, a vision whose lessons and accomplishments resonate with new urgency today.