Folk toys folk joys
by Paul Gonzales
Sep 14, 2012 | 2821 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Paul Gonzales photo
Sherry Kafka Wagner said she started her collection with her children during their travels to Mexico.
Paul Gonzales photo Sherry Kafka Wagner said she started her collection with her children during their travels to Mexico.
When you walk in to the Beeville Art Museum this weekend, your senses will be attacked.

Handmade toys of all shapes and sizes from all over the world are nearly spilling from every room of museum. They’re made of wood, clay, cardboard or wire.

There are planes, trains and automobiles all lined up in a row or hanging from the ceiling in faux childlike combat.

Boats and goats and voodoo dolls and village malls.

It’s all here.

Anything you could ever imagine, made from things you wouldn’t have ever thought of, sit inside the museum space.

But where did it all come from? Who amassed this massive collection of toys?

Her name is Sherry Kafka Wagner.

And she has a lot of stuff.

“I started picking up these things with my children when they were little while we were traveling in Mexico, and we would buy toys that people had made off the street or in markets,” Wagner explained.

“I never intended to be a collector. I’m an accidental collector.”

One hundred percent of the items on display are handmade and come from all over the world. Places like Kuwait, Africa, Mexico and Brazil.

“Because my work has taken me to a lot of different places, I just kept buying.

“I’d buy things, but I never thought I was buying for my collection.

“I’d think, ‘Oh, this is interesting. I want to take this home to my kids.’

“Then eventually, as I had grandchildren, I’d bring things for them.

“I like the sense of humor that’s in a lot of these pieces.”

This exhibit is unique in that it is so enormous and practically fills the entire museum.

It’s a child’s dream packed tightly into a large space, so much so that the building seems as though it has shrunk.

“This exhibit for me is about how creative people are.

“The way that people seem to be the most relaxed and express themselves almost without thinking creatively is when they play.

“And they make toys. Wherever I went in the world, I was impressed with the fact that even if people have almost nothing, they take whatever they have and make something fun and interesting.”

And the more you walk around the rooms and the closer you look, the more you’ll see.

Brightly-colored churches with little people dancing or praying in the windows.

Villages with tiny animals. Chickens with intricate designs painstakingly drawn on them.

Buses with drivers. Skeleton fisherman, one with fish bones on the end of a line, the other reeling in a boot.

All stories told with no words but instead with images.

“I do believe that the artist is not a special kind of person. I believe that every person is a special kind of artist.

“You might be an artist with numbers, you might be an artist with building.

“There’s lots of ways people express themselves. In toys, you can kind of see their spirit.”

And, though Wagner is an “accidental collector,” when did she happen across such an accident?

“I bought my first toy in 1968. I had worked on the staff at my first job working on the planning staff at HemisFair at the World’s Fair in San Antonio.

“I worked with Alexander Gerard, who had a folk art collection. I had never even heard of folk art, but then I got interested.

“I watched him with his collection, and I was interested in all the little toys and miniature things he had.

“Then... I started traveling after that, and I went to Mexico, and I saw these things in the markets and in the streets.

“I never intended for it to grow to such gargantuan proportions.”

How much exactly a gargantuan proportion really is, she doesn’t know.

“I have them all written down in little books, but I’ve never counted them all up.

“It’s been a marathon to get them all packed up and moved and installed.”

And this exhibit is the first time the items have been out for the public to see.

“My dear friend Margaret Moser had visited my house, and she said, ‘Oh, I wish all the children in Beeville could see these toys,’ and I said, ‘Well, we could do that...maybe’.

“And then from there, conversations went on, and I so admire this museum because of their emphasis on education and on the kids.

“I just thought this would be fun and the children would really enjoy seeing these things.”

And when the toys are not sprawled out, filling up museum space, most are tucked neatly away in boxes or plastic bins underneath her bed.

“I have them on bookcases, and I have them stored in cabinets.

“And I have a lot of them displayed, not nearly this, but a number of them are out around the house.

“Used to when children came, I’d have a lot more out, but now that my family is grown and my grandchildren are grown, too, I’m more inclined to pack them away.”

But, nonetheless, they’re all here in their intriguing beauty.

Tons of airplanes; one from Nepal made out of a shoeshine box. Others made from clay, gourds, twine, wire and one from Kenya made from wire and beads.

There’s a Brazil swan nesting with her eggs carved entirely out of balsa wood.

Navajo cardboard horses placed on a wall.

“There’s a lot of interesting cars and trucks that they make in Burkina Faso, Africa.

“There’s just a lot of guys there that make the most amazing little vehicles, and they run and work.”

The exhibit runs through next year, but what will become of the Tina Turner wire frame doll when it’s over?

And what about the radio made of wire, complete with handle and dial tuner, that actually works?

“I haven’t sold anything yet, but now that I’m getting older I would love to get rid of this, but I don’t quite know what to do with it to tell you the truth.

“You know what I would really like – I know this is just me dreaming – but I would love for it to go someplace where children could have access to it. Where they could see it and enjoy it.

“That would please me so much.”

The “Folk Toys for Folk Joys” exhibit begins Saturday, with a reception from noon to 2 p.m., and runs through Jan. 3, 2013.

For more information about the exhibit or events visit

Paul Gonzales is the entertainment writer at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 116, or at
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