RETOLD: African American Art & Folklore, and the Cochran Collection at the Akron Art Museum

Beverly Buchanan, Happy Shack, lithograph, 1986. Courtesy of the Cochran Collection.

“Wes, always try to see this collection as more than an investment (I know you do). I want you to understand that the gratification of being up close to the action of a planet of artists is a rare circumstance in human affairs. It is a loner’s trip. Few around you can comprehend the enormity of your undertaking. Drink constantly from its fathomless fountain of joys and bask in its meadows of self-fulfillment.” -Letter to Wesley Cochran from William L. May, July 1987

Wesley Cochran traveled to Colorado to visit his uncle, William L. May, following graduation from West Georgia College in 1974. May had been collecting and selling art for years, and Wesley, impressed by his flamboyant personality, wanted to know more about the art business.

After three months of hanging out with his uncle, Wesley took his advice and sought employment to earn money to put into an art collection. He applied for a job on an oil rig in the Persian Gulf, was hired, and signed a two-year contract. The work was grueling, but committed to collecting art, Wesley sent his uncle $1000 every two or three months. May purchased prints and kept them until Wesley left the oil rig work and returned to LaGrange, Georgia, his hometown, where he started working as a stone mason.

Wesley and Missy Cochran.

May bought limited edition prints by Alexander Calder, Romare Bearden, Man Ray, Dali, Picasso, Warhol, and later Lichtenstein, Motherwell, and other modern masters, which became the core of Cochran’s early collection. Their relationship continued, as did the letters, which provided Wesley with advice and anecdotal stories about meeting artists and the art market.

From 1974 until he died in 1988, May sent dozens of letters, some longer than others. Wesley kept them as inspiration as he continued to buy and collect art. After May’s death, Wesley wanted to continue collecting. With the what he learned from his uncle, he set out to build a collection with his wife, Missy.

Wesley met Missy Cochran in 1981. She had graduated from LaGrange College in 1980 and received her master’s degree from Columbus State University in 1986. They were married in 1985.

“I thought it was a joke when Wesley asked me if I wanted to see his etching,” Missy said. “My mother told me about people like him, but he quickly educated me on the art scene, and we have been collecting ever since.”

The collectors typically use a formula for buying art suggested by May: never buy emerging artists; wait until an artist hits mid-career, then purchase their work.

“My uncle was a dominating force for us and called the shots,” Wesley said. “We listened and did what exactly he said.”

Purchasing art with a small budget requires less speculation, he said. Younger successful artists do not often mature into older successful artists. Paying rent and covering living expenses gets in their way, and they may find a steady job necessary, leaving behind their career as an artist.

May died without handing over his art business contacts. Most of them were in New York City and other major American cities. Missy and Wesley had to find their network. As fate would have it, the year after May’s death, they met artist Camille Billops at an art fair in Atlanta. She was a personality as flamboyant as May and just as persuasive. Faith Ringgold, Margo Humphrey, Howardena Pindell, and Lois Mailou Jones were there, too. They met Mildred Thompson later that year.

The couple traveled to New York City to meet Billops at her loft on Broadway and Broome Street in SoHo, returning to LaGrange with dozens of books and published articles about African American artists. Billops told the collectors to read and learn about the field before buying any art—the same advice May had given them twenty years earlier.

Willie Cole, American Domestic, serigraph and digital print, 2016.

The Cochran Collection of African American Works on Paper started shortly afterward and has grown from a couple of works purchased by Wesley’s uncle into a notable collection of contemporary and historical works by artists dating back to the 1930s, with over 500 works on paper, including prints, drawings, and watercolors. Their entire collection consists of mainly limited edition prints from twentieth-century modern masters, contemporary artists, and several dozen Andy Warhol silkscreens, and is over 850 pieces.

RETOLD: African American Art & Folklore opens at the Akron Art Museum on November 4 and remains on display through March 24, 2024.The exhibit includes over seventy works on paper, sculptures, ceramics, and photographs from the Cochran Collection, by Beverly Buchanan, Mildred Thompson, Howardena Pindell, Camille Billops, Robert Blackburn, Chakaia Booker, Jacob Lawrence, Norma Morgan, Adrian Piper, Martin Puryear, Lorna Simpson, and Charles White, along with others.

Dr. Tameka Ellington, the Black Beauty Activist, fashion scholar, and speaker, curated the exhibition. Her new book, Black Hair in a White World, a study of the cultural history, perceptions, and increasing acceptance of Black hair in broader American society, was released by Kent State University Press earlier this year.

“Once I discovered that the Cochrans were white, I began researching more about them. After speaking with Wes, my fascination with the couple continued to grow,” said Dr. Ellington in a recent newsletter to museum members. “I’ve come to understand that the important thing is not the race of the collector or their socioeconomic status. What’s important is their passion, what they value, and the legacy they want to leave.”

While curating the show, she connected traditional African folklore stories to the Cochran Collection. The inspiration behind the artists’ works resonated with her.

“Every artwork in the exhibition connects to the idea of remembering the ancestors, the religions that originated in places such as Nigeria and Haiti, the radicalization of yesterday that is still very prevalent today,” Dr. Ellington added, “and, of course, the continuing resistance that my ancestors commenced in the earliest days of the Atlantic slave trade.”

Camille Billops, Mammy’s Little Coal Black Rose, lithograph, 1992. Images courtesy of the Cochran Collecton.

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