ROCKINGHAM — Have you ever bought a used car and thought: “I wonder what that salesman does in his free time?”
The answer could be any number of things, but if you bought a car from Jep Atkinson, the answer would be: sculpting.
Atkinson died in January of last year following a bad fall at the age of 84. He worked in Richmond County for 55 years as a manager for TranSouth Financial and, after retiring, opened Jep Atkinson Auto and Truck Sales. From now until Tuesday at the Richmond County Arts Council, the public will have the chance to see a side of Atkinson not known to many outside of family: the artist.
“So many people knew Jep but they never knew about his carving,” said his wife Johnsie Atkinson. “It’s going to be a surprise to a lot of people that he did that.”
He had a reputation as a very private, but deeply intelligent person. Johnsie Atkinson said you would think he was quiet “until you got to know him.” When they went out in public, she said, he would tell her to talk to people so he wouldn’t have to. And while in his professional life he loved selling cars and working with numbers, he never sold any of his artwork — except to Richmond Community College where he took art classes as an adult.
“I think he would be pleased that we’re sharing (his work) with the community,” said his eldest daughter Joy McGugan, a graduate of Richmond Senior High School, herself an avid painter and former art teacher, thanks largely to support from her father. “I think that he was an artist at heart and selling his work … was not his intent.”
In fact, the show at the Arts Council will be the second time any of his pieces have left the family’s home. The first time was two years ago when Jep Atkinson allowed McGugan to take her favorite piece of his — a wood-carved abstraction of Madonna and Child — to her church to be a part of the nativity scene.
“People at church wanted it back,” McGugan said. “That was a once in a lifetime thing.”
On the juxtaposition of a successful business man having a rich creative life, McGugan said she believes he was very “balanced” between the left brain, the logical side, and the right brain, the creative side. In searching through his stuff after he passed, McGugan said they found a folder from 1978 which contained a worksheet from his time at TranSouth. There were figures and notes which blurred into a flowing doodle of a horse that dominated the page.
Jep Atkinson’s work will appear alongside paintings by McGugan. His pieces on display include bronze busts of two of his grandchildren, D.J. King and Tina Sugg, when they were children, and one of his son Jay Atkinson when he was a young man. Others are a handmade jewelry box, a miniature dresser drawer, and several large but staggeringly intricate wood-panel carvings of an owl, fish and a tropical bird. The fish is a favorite of his other daughter, Julie King.
There’s even a hint of another one of his and his wife’s hobbies they adopted later in life: an easel with the head of a bulldog carved into it. The couple raised and showed bulldogs in dog shows — including the famed Westminster Dog Show — for about 15 years, winning more ribbons than Johnsie Atkinson could count.
One notable piece that won’t be at the Arts Council is one of the first pieces that he worked on: a wooden hobby horse that he wanted to make for he and his wife’s first grandchild.
“She’s 40 now and I’ve still got this horse in my house,” Johnsie Atkinson joked. “He never put the legs on it … that child will get that horse one day.”
Near the end of his life, Jep Atkinson developed Alzheimer’s and his work slowed. Julie King said the disease “hit him hard.” He left behind a sizable buildup of unused walnut wood and cypress knees that he had his family collect for him.
He attended Clemson University to study architecture but wasn’t able to finish because of money. Never able to go back as a fully enrolled student, he stayed in art classes at local colleges, and eventually shared a pottery class with McGugan when she was at UNC Pembroke. He got the better grade.
“He was such a perfectionist and spent so much time on (his work),” McGugan said. “The fact that it’s out of the house is amazing.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]
Jep Atkinson’s abstract carving of Madonna and Child, the favorite of his daughter Joy McGugan.