By Emily Williams
At 104 years of age, Helen Hudgens has traveled the world collecting art and experiences. But for her wish of a lifetime, she stayed closer to home.
On March 10, Hudgens visited pieces of her own art collection that she donated to the Birmingham Museum of Art and her old friend, senior curator Dr. Donald Wood.
Upon learning that Wood will be retiring this summer after three decades with the museum, Hudgens said she had to make one more trip to see her collection and her friend. Her wish was granted through the Wish of a Lifetime organization, a national wish-granting organization that has a close partnership with Brookdale University Park in Homewood, where Hudgens lives.
“Helen Hudgens is a very special person,” Wood said. “I first met Helen when I became curator of Asian art here at the Birmingham Museum of Art in 1987. She and her late husband, James, were founding members of the original support group for the museum, the Asian Art Society, and she attended every single event we held until her health prevented her from attending.”
Hudgens, a native of Bliss, New York, has said she always saw value in education. After graduating from Geneso State College of New York, she pursued a career as a school teacher, first in her home state and then in Birmingham. She also became a poet, publishing six books of poems. Through her poetry, she gained recognition from the National Society of Pen Women and has had her work read at the organization’s annual meeting of Arts and Letters.
Of the many places she visited with her late husband, Hudgens said that Asia is her favorite destination. When she returned from Asia, she brought back a passion for its cultures and an art collection worthy of exhibition.
Hudgens said the arts always have been important to her. She has been an avid supporter and member of the BMA as well as the Heard Museum, the Smithsonian and the Native American Museum, of which she is a charter member.
“Over the years, she has been a very generous patron,” Wood said.
Items she has donated can be seen in the museum’s Asian Art Gallery, which she returned to for the first time in 10 years during her recent BMA visit.
According to Wood, though her visits are few today, in her heyday with the museum, she was a regular fixture.
“I also had the pleasure of escorting Helen to the annual museum dinner and ball on several occasions. Her wit, intellect and charm always made a memorable evening for all of us,” he said.
Her legacy lives on through her donations, whether it is an 18th century Chinese porcelain bowl decorated with peaches and landscaping or a 19th century Korean ceremonial scepter – an unusual find, according to Wood.
In addition to supplying pieces, Hudgens has provided funds that have supported Wood and the museum’s efforts to acquire additional works for the Asian art collection.
“These include everything from a second- century jar from Vietnam, an eighth-century Chinese ewer, Korean textiles, Japanese ceramics, paintings and calligraphies, to a wonderful group of Japanese textile stencils from the 19th century,” Wood said. “Her kindness and generosity have helped enrich the collection in many ways.”
In addition to reconnecting with Wood, Hudgens and a group of family and friends spent her Wish of a Lifetime enjoying a private tour of the museum led by Wood.
“In the past few years, we have kept in touch with cards and phone calls. The museum has also tried to remember Helen each year on her birthday with flowers,” Wood said. “We miss her coming to the museum, especially to celebrate her birthday at a luncheon here with her friends.”
Hudgens and the tour group enjoyed a lunch at the BMA to celebrate not just a birthday, but the wish of a lifetime granted.