If Hillsborough artist Ann Brownlee Hobgood was a thief, only your grandmother’s kitchen would be in danger. Her studio — a small mill house she purchased next door to her mill house home — is an interactive collage of anything and everything you would find anywhere, and much of it can be used for baking or cooking.
To this modern-day Geppetto, though, that aluminum colander will likely be a hat or helmet for one of her figures or sculptures created from whatever metal and wood objects she can find or that have been dropped off by friends or past customers for her to find use. That coffee can will make a fine body. Glass-bottle bottle caps multi-task as eyes, a nose, and buttons. Two panels from a veggie steamer basket make a handsome bowtie.
You won’t find that any of Hobgood’s creations become puppets, but you will find they come to life. And, at least for now, you’ll find them in the display window of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
On a recent trip to New York, Elizabeth Matheson — another well-known Hillsborough artist — paid a visit to the American Folk Art Museum with a couple of friends. She knew Hobgood’s artwork was going to be there, but she was flabbergasted to find her figures in the window.
“There they were,” Matheson said. “Absolute top billing; stars in the window. I was thrilled.”
What were the odds? Matheson snapped a few photos with her smartphone and put them on her Facebook page, tagging her friend Hobgood in her post.
“I was just shocked,” Hobgood said. “I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.”
Last November, during the annual Orange County Artists Guild Tour, Hobgood’s studio was packed with tour goers, as it often is during the event. Her studio, with its seemingly endless, and surprisingly well-organized supply of materials, is tight and there are bottlenecks to the flow of onlookers and shoppers. Not to mention, Hobgood has the gift of gab, and believes each person who has deemed her shop worthy of a visit is also deserving of at least a brief interaction, never mind how unlikely the ‘brief’ part of that will be.
Last year’s studio tour was her most successful, she counted at least 150 people each day of the tour. During one of the busier days, she was asked by a customer if they could take a few photos of Hobgood’s artwork.
“I said ‘sure,’ and so she went around taking pictures,” Hobgood said. “She came back up when she was getting ready to leave and said she used to be Director of Retail Operations at the American Folk Art Museum gift shop, and she now lives here in Hillsborough. She said, ‘I just love your work and I know the new manager (at the Folk Art Museum) will also love it. I’m sending in these pictures.’”
That day, Hobgood was unable to really talk with Stefanie Levinson, the woman who had worked at the American Folk Art Museum. But within a week, the current manager, who had received the photos from Levinson, contacted Hobgood to express his own love of her artwork, and that he wanted to purchase several for the museum.
Her excitement at the prospect of such a high-profile setting for her work soon turned to anxiety. A request for several pieces right after one of her biggest sales of the year? During the holidays? She was able to send 25 photos of what she had available, and the museum manager placed an order for six of them.
“So, that’s how I got there,” she said. “I figured my pieces would be placed somewhere in the back and out of the way. But in the window?”
Hobgood’s figures have been featured in several North Carolina publications in the Triad and in newspapers and magazines, but nothing before matches the level of recognition and jaw-dropping, double-take attention the display at the American Folk Art Museum will probably deliver. She’s heard from many friends and peers.
Hobgood has been creating her figures since she retired when she was 62. She made a few pieces when she was working part time, and when people saw what she was making, they wanted to buy them. From there, it took off.
She’s always been artistic and she’s dabbled in other mediums. Years ago, her son worked for the Town of Chapel Hill and it had announced a project for artists to submit self portraits. Her son urged his mother to submit a portrait. She didn’t have any canvases, and she hadn’t done art in a while, but her son was adamant about her taking part in the project. Hobgood created her self portrait from objects and materials she found around her house. The portrait was a hit, and Hobgood was hooked.
For her inventory of materials, Hobgood has a few recycling and thrift places where she finds metal and wood pieces. She frequents them so much that some of the places save objects for her. Also, she said, it’s not unusual for her to find a box of odds and ends left for her on the porch of her brilliantly painted studio. She will find a place for almost any kind of material, although she has less use for plastic.
Each finished piece is a one-of-its-kind. The direction she goes with a project often is dictated by the materials with which she is working.
“There will be one piece in there that just speaks to me and I go, ‘Oh my goodness, these would make the best legs,” Hobgood said. “Sometimes for specific things, but the more unusual the piece, the more possibilities are opened.”
To add to the ‘personality’ of her works of art, Hobgood will write a line or two about the figure to further individualize it, and act as a springboard for imagination.
Even though she thrives on social interaction, Hobgood said she enjoys being in her studio each day, and that it’s not uncommon for her to lose herself in her craft. And even as she’s reached her upper 70s, she knows the secret to her enthusiasm and energy level is to stay in motion.
“I’m very active,” she said. “Most of my friends just slowed down or quit doing what they were doing. If you just keep doing it, hopefully you’ll stay healthy and strong. I hope that lasts for a while.”
Ann Brownlee Hobgood’s artwork can be seen and purchased at the Hillsborough Arts Council at 102 N. Churton St. in downtown Hillsborough.
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