Victoria woman searches to uncover identity of woman in portrait
Feb. 15, 2012 at 8:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 15, 2012 at 8:16 p.m.
As Kathy Sims prepared to leave an estate sale at the home of area antiquarians Orbit and Novella Hosey in June 2005, an item at the edge of the front yard caught her eye.
Gleaming under the morning sun, the portrait of an unknown woman sat in the dewy grass and was propped up against the wrought-iron fence, demanding Sims' full attention.
The 16x13 inch oil canvas painting was of an attractive black woman possibly in her 20s or 30s with caramel-colored skin, a round face framed with a coif of jet black, softly curled hair, big brown eyes and a friendly smile.
She wore a black dress reminiscent of the 1950s or '60s, and her ears and neck were draped in pearls.
Sims knew right away the portrait was something she would not be leaving behind that day although her van - playfully nicknamed "Big Red" because of its large size and color - was filled to capacity with purchases she had already made that morning, including wooden columns, a postcard and oak-framed bevel glass windows.
"She was just so pretty and elegant," said Sims, 60. "I thought, 'I can't just leave her here. She's got to go home with me.'"
Orbit Hosey offered Sims the painting for $5, which she gladly paid.
Since moving to Victoria in 2003, Sims, a retired county hospital office manager, has enjoyed frequenting estate sales in search of antiques, knickknacks, home decor and historical photographs.
For the past 25 years, Sims, who used to dream of one day owning an antique shop, has been particularly intrigued with collecting photos of families and women, particularly those wearing beautiful hats.
"I started out collecting whatever struck me - groups, families. But I started seeing more interesting pictures of women," said Sims. "I started finding the hats in photos, so I would display the hats and the photos of women wearing the hats."
Although the mysterious woman in the portrait she acquired from the Hosey estate sale was not wearing a hat, she felt compelled to take in the orphaned painting anyway.
"She was just sitting there all alone," said Sims. "She needed a home."
Over the years, Sims said she had intentions of reuniting many of the portraits and pictures she came across with their rightful owners, but her busy schedule pushed her wishful intentions to the back burner.
Having little to no information about the origins of the artwork also made the daunting task difficult, if not impossible.
This was the case with the painting of the unknown woman.
Sims only knew the painting came out of Hosey's antique storage, and the woman was possibly a teacher in Victoria.
The canvas did not contain an artist signature either.
The determined photo and painting collector displayed the picture in her home for about six months before putting it into storage to replace it with newly acquired estate sale purchases.
As years passed, Sims said she never forgot about the portrait, but it was not until she saw a story on black history in the Victoria Advocate earlier this month that she developed a renewed desire to learn the identity of the woman in the painting.
Sims contacted the Advocate for help in turn, setting the ball in motion to reunite the nameless woman with her family.
"I wanted to find out who she belongs to. I'd love it if she was still alive or I could find a family member or her extended family members," said Sims. "They can frame it and enjoy it."
After reviewing the image, Gary Dunnam, executive director of Victoria Preservation, was clueless about the woman's identity.
However, upon first look at the portrait, Velma Mathis, a retired Victoria teacher, confidently identified the portrait as being that of Victoria resident Agnes Jewett.
Well-known in the Crossroads for her civic-mindedness and outspoken nature, Jewett, who is still alive, was a former assistant to the graduate dean at Prairie View A&M University and a former counselor and psychology professor at Victoria College.
She graduated from F.W. Gross High School in 1956, two years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregating schools by race was illegal, but 10 years before Victoria schools actually integrated.
In a July 2004 Advocate article, Jewett described herself as a "ill-reputationed black," referencing the time she bucked the system and drank from the whites-only water fountain at Woolworth Department store.
"I just told him I'd never had colored water, and I was not about to try it," Jewett reportedly said to the store manager when he reprimanded her about drinking from fountain.
Jewett went on to become executive director of The Greater Victoria Civic Coalition.
Attempts to reach Jewett on Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.
Sims was delighted at the possibility that the mystery had been solved; however, she is prepared to continue the search if necessary.
"(The image) needs to be in its rightful home, not with someone like me who has no connection to the painting other than I find it striking," she said. "Hopefully, I will make a connection."