RALEIGH, N.C. — RALEIGH, N.C.-- While hitchhiking on the Outer Banks in 1970, Roger B. Manley asked a young man who picked him up how he could spend his time on North Carolina's barrier islands.
Beachcombing, fishing "or you could visit my grandmother," the driver offered. "She does these wood carved things."
Mr. Manley went to see Annie Hooper in her big white house in Buxton, a tiny fishing village on Hatteras Island. He found himself in a world unlike any he had ever seen. Room after room after room had been filled with biblical figures, made of concrete and wood by this 73-year-old woman with snowy white hair. In the living room, on the kitchen floor, atop bureaus, in closets, down the stairs -- 2,500 figures representing 500 scenes from the Bible.
"When I saw it, it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," recalls Mr. Manley, 42. "Everywhere you looked there were these concrete figures. I came back and tried to tell people about it. I think a lot of people found it hard to believe."
Since Mrs. Hooper's death in 1986 at the age of 89, the figures have been stored in cardboard boxes in a basement at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Now, the world will get to see the collection in its entirety and in much the same way Mrs. Hooper displayed her "symbols" (as she called them) in the big white house in Buxton.
Mr. Manley, now a free-lance curator with an interest in "visionary" artists, has assembled the figures in an exhibit titled, "A Multitude of Memory: The Life Work of Annie Hooper," at the Foundations Gallery in the university's Visual Arts Center.
For the past month, Mr. Manley and colleagues have been unpacking and unwrapping scores of sculptures, from angels no bigger than a kitten to a 4-foot-tall King Solomon.
The exhibit resembles a kind of kitschy, outdoor sculpture garden. A green pathway snakes through the gallery, taking a visitor past scene after biblical scene: The Exodus, Jacob's Ladder, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Belshazzar's Feast, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper. Each one is nestled behind a small picket fence.
Mrs. Hooper carved out similar pathways in the rooms of her house, according to Mr. Manley, who befriended the former Sunday school teacher during his 1970 visit. Plastic and silk flowers and artificial fruit adorn driftwood stumps, which are scattered throughout the exhibit -- in much the same way the flora filled the corners of Mrs. Hooper's house.
One room was so filled with figures that "she used a yardstick to turn on the light switch," says Lynn Ennis, a university employee who is helping stage the exhibit.
Mrs. Hooper routinely cleared the kitchen table of her figures so she could serve lunch, adds Kate Green, curator of textiles for the Visual Arts Center.
The figures seem crudely wrought, fashioned from driftwood, putty, house paint, shells, marbles and twigs. Yet they also reflect a profound sense of the human form -- the faces of the Hebrews as they follow Moses through the desert are each uniquely expressive. In the scene of The Ascension, the faces of the apostles are upturned, toward the rising figure of Jesus.
"In some ways they are eerily alive," says Whitney Jones, president of the board of the Jargon Society, a nonprofit press that helped preserve the collection. "Some of them have a look on their face that is of wonder. They are clearly the work of someone who had a vision, which is lacking in so much of modern life and is lacking in so many areas of visual art."
Mrs. Hooper, the wife of a commercial fisherman who later operated a motel, began making the figures late in life.
She suffered from depression and, in 1948, sought treatment in Raleigh. One day, after her return to Buxton, she picked up a piece of driftwood that became her first "symbol," a rendering she called "Moses on Mount Nebo looking over the River Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan," according to a memoir written by Mr. Manley.
"Annie Hooper was, I suppose you would say, obsessed, an unhappy person, but she found great solace in doing this work. It was a great help to her," adds Jonathan Williams, the publisher of the Jargon press, who visited Mrs. Hooper before she died. "This is something she did out of her self. It had nothing to do with the art world."
Visitors to the Buxton house often would receive a personal explanation from Mrs. Hooper about the scenes. In the exhibit at the university, one display features handwritten signs -- some scrawled on supermarket plastic-foam meat trays -- tacked to a series of crosses.
They read like prayers and prophecies: "The Cross is God's signpost to mankind Pointing him to the gift of Eternal Life," "I am coming to the Cross I am Poor And Weak And Blind . . . I Shall full Salvation Find," "There is a place where the tears of the forgiver and the forgiven mingle together (at the foot of the Cross)."