Benjamin Leroy Wigfall’s art career began in elementary school, where he drew cartoons for his friends. In high school, Wigfall pestered the principal to hire an art teacher. That teacher finally arrived for Wigfall’s last semester—and proved pivotal by helping Wigfall get lessons at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
While in high school, Wigfall often watched smokestacks in the distance as he walked to school. The image of those smokestacks coming alive as they billowed with smoke inspired him to paint “Chimneys”. When the VMFA acquired it in 1951, Wigfall was only 21 years old, making him the youngest artist ever to have a piece become a part of the VMFA collection.
Wigfall was a rising star in the art world of the 1950s and 1960s but he never pursued a career as an artist. His experience in segregated Richmond led him to instead devote his efforts to increase equal access to arts education. He first taught at Hampton and in 1963 he was hired by SUNY New Paltz, becoming the school’s first Black faculty member. In the late 1970s Wigfall founded Communications Village as a place where local youth could make prints and study art. In 1991, Wigfall founded the Watermark/Cargo Gallery. Both would attract many of the nation’s leading artists.
Wigfall’s own prints range from woodcut to relief printing to etching. Primarily categorized as an abstract artist, Wigfall nonetheless took inspiration from ordinary things around him. The subject matter for many of his works is statements and sayings, bridging visual art with oral history.
Wigfall exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the VMFA, the Norfolk Museum, and others. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Platz mounted a major retrospective of his work in the Fall of 2022.