Benjamin Wigfall

Benjamin Wigfall – Artist, Educator, and Champion of Arts Equity

Benjamin Wigfall, who died on February 9, 2017, was an artist, educator, and advocate of arts equity. Born and raised in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood, he later studied art at VMFA before his passing away on February 9th 2017.

Chimneys was acquired by VMFA when it became available in 1951 at 21 years of age – marking him as the youngest artist ever with work included in their collection.

Early Life and Education

Wigfall took an initiative that would forever change his life: as an eighth grader at Armstrong High School in Richmond, Virginia he pestered his principal to get him an art teacher. That decision proved pivotal.

Inspired by his art teachers and Lionel Feininger paintings in VMFA’s collection, Wigfall began abstract painting before turning 30 and abandoning all figurative work altogether.

In 1973, Wigfall purchased an old livery stable in Ponckhockie – an intimate working class Black community in Kingston – New York as his studio. There he founded Communications Village where he taught students and encouraged them to explore creative possibilities. It also served as a cultural center where Wigfall conducted oral history interviews of local residents; during this time his practice as a printmaker began merging with his philosophy of teaching and mentoring.

Professional Career

Benjamin Wigfall was an esteemed printmaker and art educator. After earning his BFA at Hampton Institute in Virginia, he taught printmaking at the University of Iowa – which then boasted an exceptional printmaking school – before later attaining an MFA from Yale.

Wigfall bought and renovated an old livery stable in Ponckhockie in Kingston to create Communications Village; making this space available to local youth over the course of 10 years.

This exhibition presents 37 paintings, assemblages and prints by Wigfall as well as photographs and other works related to Communications Village. It sheds light on his studio; an atmosphere which represented his belief that art emerges through collaboration among artists with various social groups and historical forces.

Achievement and Honors

Wigfall began his professional painting career after receiving a scholarship to attend Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), inspired by Lyonel Feininger paintings at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts he visited, moving away from figurative to abstract work.

In 1951, Wigfall won an art competition judged by Stuart Davis and had his oil painting Chimneys purchased by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; it marked their inaugural acquisition of an abstract work from an African American artist. Wigfall was an uncommon creature within the art world–secure in his abilities and skills yet reluctant to promote himself.

Wigfall had his work displayed at various group shows throughout his lifetime, but never held a solo exhibition – until recently when the Kingston Center of SUNY Ulster dedicated an exhibit called “Restoring Pride in Culture: Legacy and Tradition” solely to him.

Personal Life

Benjamin Wigfall was an exceptionally rare individual – one who could rely on their abilities while also placing art at the service of those without access. He taught at SUNY New Paltz and owned Watermark/Cargo Gallery in Kingston, N.Y.

Communications Village, his community center created in a former brick mule barn near Ponckhockie, is considered by many to be just as significant as his paintings, assemblages and prints. A press release issued by VMFA quotes exhibition curator Drew Thompson:

Net Worth

Ben earned his bachelor’s degree in finance and real estate at the University of Florida before establishing his own property-tax consulting firm. Over his 10-year career there he managed tax appeals on over $1 billion of both commercial and residential real estate across Southeast.

Benjamin Wigfall and Communications Village present an exhibition showcasing an artist whose works and practices directly fought inequality. Beginning as a segregated Richmond high school student and going on to earn his MFA at Hampton University and teach at State University of New York at New Paltz, Wigfall utilized his talent and resources to empower marginalized communities with voice.

Ben and Sharlean have one son. In his free time, Ben enjoys hiking and running through the San Diego mountains. Additionally, his family are members of Congregation Beth El.

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