I found Annie Hooper’s masterpiece in a warehouse in a small town in eastern North Carolina: thousands of hauntingly beautiful biblical figures made out of driftwood, seashells, putty and plaster. All of them are part of large, elaborate scenes depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments.
Hooper created them at her home in Buxton, a village on Hatteras Island, one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
She began making her biblical scenes soon after the Second World War. With the exception of a period of three years when she was caring for her ailing husband, she remained devoted to her one great work of art until her death in 1986.
Over those decades, she made thousands of figures: apostles, prophets, pilgrims, angels, the ecstatic, the lost and broken, all. She populated every room in her home with them, filling the floors, tables and even the piano top.
In her lifetime, depending on whom you asked, she was a woman called by God, an artistic visionary, a little “touched” or just plain crazy.
Now museums all over the U.S. want the art that she created out of what the sea left on Buxton’s shores.
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I first saw Annie Hooper’s art 30 years ago. In 1988, I visited an extraordinary exhibit of her work at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. A young folklorist named Roger Manley was the exhibit’s guest curator.
The exhibit featured two of Hooper’s large narrative scenes and several smaller ones, hardly 5 percent of the total, but it was still unforgettable.
That exhibit was called “A Blessing from the Source: The Annie Hooper Bequest.” Manley wrote a marvelous essay on Hooper’s life and art that accompanied the exhibit that you can find here.
At the time, I was entranced by what Hooper had done. I felt as if she had accomplished a deeply moving kind of sacred art, one uniquely born out of the coastal villages and saltwater bays where I grew up.
In the decades since that exhibit, I often longed to see Hooper’s sea-born figures again. I could not get their awed and beseeching eyes out of my mind. Neither could I forget Hooper’s astonishing gaze in photographs such as the one at the top of this essay.
After Hooper’s death, Manley became the caretaker of her biblical scenes. He had first visited her home in 1970, when he was 18 years old. For a time, he seemed to be the only person determined to preserve them.
They could not remain at Hooper’s cottage in Buxton after her death, but Manley eventually found a home for them at the Visual Arts Program at North Carolina State University.
Since that time, the program’s collections have evolved into a new museum, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. Manley is now the museum’s director.
The Gregg took good care of Hooper’s driftwood creations, but even with its growth, the museum was still not large enough to exhibit more than a small fraction of them.
Most of the time, they remained in storage in the museum’s basement, with only a scene or two being displayed publicly.
During those decades, I imagined Hooper’s driftwood people waiting in the dark to see the light again.
I used to fear for them: I wondered if they would be forgotten, or if anybody would care about them anymore.
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Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered that a new chapter in their story was unfolding. Wanting to make Hooper’s work available to a larger audience, the Gregg’s leadership team has developed a plan to divide the collection with other museums that are interested in preserving and exhibiting it.
As part of that plan, the Kohler Foundation (established by the Kohler family, of plumbing fixture fame), in Kohler, Wisconsin, agreed to fund the conservation of Hooper’s driftwood sculptures, prior to their being divided up among the Gregg and the other three museums.
As soon as I learned all this, I called Roger Manley at the Gregg and told him that I would love to see Hooper’s sculptures before they were divvied up and sent hither and yon.
Manley welcomed my interest, and he told me that conservators had been working on the sculptures all summer at a warehouse in Wilson, a town 45 miles east of Raleigh.
For some years, the warehouse has been used as the conservation lab for Wilson’s “Whirligig Park,” which has turned a farmer named Vollis Simpson’s extraordinary collection of whirligigs into one of the centerpieces of the downtown’s re-development.
The Kohler Foundation also funded the conservation of Simpson’s whirligigs.
Roger connected me with the conservators in Wilson and I immediately called them to see if I could visit the collection.
They invited me to Wilson, but they also told me something that set my heart racing: if I wanted to see Hooper’s sculptures in their entirety, I only had a few days.
The conservators had just finished with the first group of Hooper’s biblical scenes. Later that week, they intended to send that group to one of the museums. Others would soon follow. If I ever wanted to see them all together, I needed to go right away.
The next day my wife Laura and I headed to Wilson.
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Wilson was once one of the world’s largest tobacco markets. Half a century ago, the city’s downtown bustled with tobacco factories and auction houses. But as with the other great tobacco markets in eastern North Carolina– Greenville, Kinston, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro—those days are long gone.
The tobacco industry has grown more centralized and has left Wilson and those other small towns behind.
Today downtown Wilson is full of closed storefronts and abandoned warehouses, some of them beautiful old brick buildings that maybe one day will be part of the kind of revitalization that is occurring in Durham and some of the region’s other old tobacco towns.
When Laura and I drove into Wilson, we parked our car at the town’s train depot and we walked the 4 or 5 blocks to the warehouse that is being used as the conservation workshop.
Outside the warehouse, by a gate in a tall chain-link fence, a young man named Shane Winter was waiting for us.
As part of its grant support, the Kohler Foundation had employed Winter and his business partner, Ben Caguioa, to prepare the collection for its new homes. Before Hooper’s sculptures are moved to those museums, Winter, Caguioa and a team of local volunteers will clean every one of her sculptures, and they will repair those in need of repair.
Winter and Caguioa are experts in the conservation of historical artifacts. They have acquired a special reputation for their work with what folklorists call “outsider art” or “visionary art.”
That includes paintings, murals, sculptures, architecture or any other form of artistic expression that has been created outside the borders of any established artistic movement or craft tradition, and usually by someone with little or no formal training.
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Annie Hooper’s art certainly fit that bill. She was born in Buxton in 1897. Her father was a grocer and storekeeper, and her mother had been a teacher at the Hatteras school until she married.
She grew up in a large family. She had 12 brothers and sisters, and her parents also took in 14 foster children and other wards, young and old, who needed homes.
In the introduction that Roger Manley wrote for the exhibit at N. C. State in 1988, he described Hooper’s childhood and religious upbringing.
Mrs. Miller … took Annie and the rest of her brood bathing and crabbing in Pamlico Sound, on horse rides up the beach and long walks in Buxton Woods or up the long dirt road to the Methodist church, the center of community life. Packed into the second pew every Sunday…, Annie learned a clear and simple understanding of God’s love.
At that time, Buxton was a remote village located in the shadow of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, in one of the few heavily wooded parts of the Outer Banks.
Forty miles from the mainland, Hatteras Island still feels a bit like the edge of the world, but when Hooper was a girl it had a far more remote feeling and was much harder to reach than it is now.
When she was young, you could not yet reach the island by bridge or ferry, the way you can now. Visitors were few. When they needed to go to the mainland, most local people traveled on the mail boat or caught a ride on a freight boat or one of the Globe Fish Co.’s boats.
In or about 1917, Hooper married a fisherman from Stumpy Point named John Hooper. The couple made their home in Stumpy Point, on the mainland west of Hatteras Island. In the early part of the 20thcentury, the village was one of the largest fishing ports on Pamlico Sound.
Annie raised their son Edgar and looked after their home. She also taught Sunday school, played the organ at the Methodist church and wrote poetry.
Every day that her husband was off fishing, she tried to find time to write a new poem for him.
If I could write in the language of angels
On sheets of shining gold
And forever write my love to you
The half could not be told.
She had a difficult time during the Second World War. Like many other fishermen in northeastern North Carolina, her husband John gave up fishing and left home to work at the naval shipyard in Norfolk during the war. At the same time, their son Edgar served in the Army Engineers in the South Pacific.
I don’t fully understand what happened to Hooper during those years, but something got to her, maybe loneliness, maybe fear for her son’s safety or maybe it was a mix of things.
But she began having bouts of debilitating mental illness marked by depression, blackouts, amnesia and hearing voices.
After the war, the Hoopers moved back to her home in Buxton. They opened the Lighthouse View Motel, which catered to the first big generation of tourists and sports fishermen that visited Hatteras Island. Annie continued to struggle with mental illness.
* * *
Then one morning, Hooper woke up and walked down to the shore and began collecting driftwood.
With that driftwood, Hooper began to create her biblical scenes: she called the first “Moses on Mount Nebo looking over the River Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan.”
Many others followed: the Exodus from Egypt, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Sermon on the Mount, Jacob’s Ladder, Belshazzar’s Feast, Jesus bidding Lazarus to Rise and hundreds more.
Most of the individual figures stand 16 to 24 inches high. No two looked alike. Every one had its own personality.
“Early morning till late at night I was working, and when I wasn’t working I was out through the woods or down to the sea side looking for something to work with,” she told Manley.
In that conversation with Manley, Hooper continued: “I always found what I wanted and I’d come back with all I could carry. I had a light put in the barn where I could work at night when I wanted to.”
She added: “I believe when God requires us to do things, he will equip us and make us ready.”
I don’t understand the origins of Hooper’s art as fully as I would like, but this much seems clear: in the beginning, the most important thing about her art was her own healing.
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Annie Hooper did not simply illustrate biblical scenes sculpturally: she created a whole world out of what she found at the shore.
The faces in her driftwood sculptures make you feel as if you know them: when I look at them, I am convinced that she was creating us— humanity awed at the Creation, humanity more than a little overwhelmed that we are here at all.
In Hooper’s art, the eyes of the human figures often are looking heavenward: beseeching. Not looking for mercy or forgiveness, but yearning for understanding and a greater closeness to God.
They are swept up in the storm of what it is to be human. Some are filled with hope, and some look a bit forlorn. Some are lost, and some look at peace. Some are joyful and playful.
She sculpted Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Daniel, the Apostles and many of the other best-known figures from the Old and New Testaments.
But she also made thousands of unnamed figures, ranging from dozens of grieving Hebrew mothers to the animals in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
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Annie Hooper’s Biblical sculptures remind me of something far removed in time and place from Hatteras Island: a picture I saw when I was in college of a 15th-century limewood sculpture.
The sculptor was a wood carver named Michel Erhart of Ulm, and he lived in what is now southern Germany. In the sculpture that I am remembering, he carved and painted the Virgin Mary with fearful, awed and wondrous humanity taking shelter in her robes.
Erhart’s “Virgin of Mercy” is maybe the finest example of a theme that was common in Christian art from the 13th to the 16th century: Mary the intercessor, Mary the protector, Mary the merciful, sheltering people looking out of her robe into the perils of life.
Look again at the photograph of Annie Hooper that is at the top of this essay: you will see why she and her driftwood figures remind me of that ancient tradition of sacred art.
I think this Outer Banks woman hoped that the lost and troubled might find comfort, rest and maybe even a path to salvation in her symbols, which was the word she used to describe her sculptures.
But figuratively speaking, I think she was also Mary, the blessed mother, and she watched over and protected the world that she had made, which stood for our world, this world of glory, beauty, misery and mystery into which we have all been born.
I think that Annie Hooper’s lifework was a gesture of love, a gesture of a terrible love trying to protect the world from the darkness.
* * *
When Laura and I met Shane Winter at the gate and walked into the warehouse for the first time, I saw Annie Hooper’s lifetime of sculpted, painted and adorned driftwood and I felt thousands of eyes looking at us.
Of course I knew the sculptures had not really turned our way, but for a split second that is how it felt.
The thousands of driftwood figures rested on long shelves that ran along the front and rear walls of the warehouse, as well as on the floor and on tables at one end of the building.
The first group of sculptures stood on shelves by the warehouse’s main door. They included hundreds of figures, and they were all part of Exodus, the biblical story of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan.
I did not expect them to have the emotional power that they had in her home or even at the N.C. State exhibit, since they were not arranged diorama-style into biblical scenes there in the warehouse.
But if they lost something from not being set in their right places in relation to one another, they also gained something: it was as if they had left whatever pages of Scripture they had belonged and huddled altogether, like refugees taking shelter from a storm or a war.
I was beyond happy to see them. I was excited to see them out of storage and in the light again. I was elated to see them peering toward heaven once more.
Laura and I wandered through the warehouse. Shane had very kindly come in on his day off for our sake, but he did not hurry us. Now and then, I stopped to look at a yellow sticky-note or a paper tag that indicated a figure’s identification number or the biblical scene to which it belonged.
I asked Shane about figures that turned out to be Abraham, Herod, the apostles and a several others. He had a catalog, matched to the identification numbers, that explained who a figure was, if it was known.
Laura and I admired the way that Hooper had taken the driftwood as it was and built on its shape and lines. At times, she found so much character in a piece of wood that she only needed to use a couple of shells and a touch of paint in order to make an enormously expressive human face.
We visited Hooper’s biblical scenes in Wilson more than six weeks ago. By now Shane Winter and his team of conservators must be getting close to the conclusion of their work there.
Soon they will send the last of the scenes to the museums that will be their new homes. Soon a wider world will have the chance to discover the wild and sacred art that Annie Hooper made with what she found by the sea.
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Special thanks to Shane Winter for taking the time to show us around the conservation lab. I am also very grateful for Roger Manley’s help. I relied heavily on his essay that was part of the exhibit “A Blessing from the Source: The Annie Hooper Bequest” that was at N.C. State in 1988. The quotes from Annie Hooper’s poetry and the interview with her are from that essay. I also drew information from a wonderful collection of documents on Hooper’s art and its preservation at the website for SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments).