A selection of works of Julia Elizabeth Tolbert will soon be fully restored and a part of the college's permanent collection thanks to the generosity of Dr. Thomas W. Tolbert ’67 and Judith Klasen Tolbert ’77.
Julia Elizabeth Tolbert, active from the 1930s through the mid-1950s, studied under Lamar Dodd, namesake of the University of Georgia's Lamar Dodd School of Art. Until now she has been largely unknown because she rarely showed her works and was not interested in selling them either. Wofford College became the largest holder of her art in 2011 when two generations of Tolberts donated nearly the entire life-work corpus — including paintings in oil, watercolor and gouache as well as drawings, prints, jewelry and ceramics — to the college's permanent collection. The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., and Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at University of Georgia Libraries, also hold examples of her work.
According to Youmi Efurd, curator and cultural arts coordinator, Tom and Judy Tolbert have provided major funding to restore 23 of Julia Elizabeth Tolbert's best paintings, most of which had been stored in barns for a half-century. Additional funding has come from Joseph M. and Angela S. Tolbert. Julia Elizabeth’s work falls into the genre of Southern art. Restoration of the paintings will be completed by August, and the college plans to exhibit them in the new Rosalind Sallenger Richardson Center for the Arts in the spring.
Tom Tolbert remembers his aunt Julia Elizabeth fondly for the character she was, even if she did let him at age five ride his tricycle off the steps of his grandparents’ imposing two-story home in Ninety Six, S.C.
"When I was in first grade, she gave me an art book – “And on the Eighth Day” — with line drawings of nude people cavorting or frolicking in the park. I thought it was great," says Tolbert, "but my teacher didn't like it much. Julia Elizabeth was ahead of her time but a misfit by community standards."
According to Tom, Julia Elizabeth Tolbert didn't show or sell her work on principle.
"She would not subject herself to public taste," instead she provided for herself by teaching school and assisting a mink farm with breeding pedigrees. She also held a passive interest in the family tree farm in Greenwood, S.C. She spent much of her time and money becoming informed about the art world. "She was in New York, Boston and Philadelphia when various artists were peaking," says Tom.
Although prolific, Julia Elizabeth Tolbert did not enjoy a long career because she had progressive myopia and Graves' disease.
"She couldn't see very well. Her glasses were the thick Coke-bottle type," says Tom. "Not being able to see and an increasing intentional tremor cut off her production in 1954."
Artistic talent runs in the family. According to Judy Tolbert, Julia Elizabeth's great nephew, Joseph M. Tolbert (MFA, University of South Carolina), presented a show of his works at Wofford in 2011. In 2012, Tom and Judy's daughter and Julia Elizabeth's great niece, Yvette Roxanne "Roxi" Tolbert (MFA, PhD, Kent State University), exhibited her work at Wofford concurrently with an inaugural showing of Julia Elizabeth's unrestored works. Roxi, a practicing art therapist, also followed Julia's Elizabeth's footsteps by teaching in Appalachia while living the life of a working artist. Tom, who majored in chemistry at Wofford, worked as an industrial research and development scientist, college teacher and church organist, as well as playing harpsichord and dabbling in art since receiving childhood encouragement from his aunt Julia Elizabeth. Judy holds degrees in keyboard performance (BMus, MMus, Converse) as well as in French and German (BA, Wofford). She also served as a church organist and ran an independent accounting firm as a CPA.
In addition to contributing to the college's permanent collection, Tom and Judy also gave to the Montgomery Music Building renovation project. A practice room in the building is named in their honor.
By Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington '89