The Kentucky home of Al and Mary Norton Shands was designed for an immersive art experience.
In the 1980s, Al and Mary Norton Shands commissioned architect David Morton to design a home for them and their art collection. The sprawling villa sits among the rolling hills of the Kentucky countryside and is called, appropriately, Great Meadows.
House and landscape are literally part of the collection. Sol LeWitt and other artists created works to be painted on the walls and ceilings, and Maya Lin created an earthwork that complements the other sculptures dotting the meadows. “I don’t want it to look like a sculpture park,” Al says. “I want each piece to have its own voice.”
I found it particularly interesting to see Lin’s Kentucky Line, 2006, slowly softening under vegetation and in the distance Alex Hartley’s contemporary folly, A Gentle Collapsing, 2015.
Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial was selected in 1981 when she was an undergraduate at Yale. Kentucky Line is one of her “earth drawings.”
Hartley’s folly is a galvanized steel representation of a midcentury tract house frozen in a state of decay, awaiting nature to overtake it as well.
The two pieces illustrate the inevitability of change. Inside the house, vitality reigns both in the collector who is energetically “about to be 90” and in the collection.
Shands’ office is enveloped in a vibrant wall drawing, #1082: bars of color, 2003, by Sol LeWitt. “It may be the only wall drawing he did that also covers the ceiling,” he observes.
Mary Shands, who died in 2009, co-founded and was the first president of the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft). Al recalls going to what at first felt like too many craft shows but was soon hooked. “One day I happened to wander into a booth that had figurative sculptures by Kentucky ceramist Wayne Ferguson,” he says. “I bought one, and as I was walking to the car I turned around and bought two more pieces. I realized that something had happened to me in that moment.” At first, the couple bought primarily local crafts and then grew to acquire crafts by artists with international recognition. Eventually they progressed into sculpture.
“We had similar taste in art as well as in friends,” Al says. “I think there may have been three times we disagreed. One time we were in a New York
gallery and saw a piece by the ceramist Ken Price. We were both impressed but I said, ‘Mary, this thing is too expensive, we’re not going to spend that kind of money.’ I couldn’t stop thinking about it, though, and it began to bother me that we didn’t buy it. I called the gallery and they told me, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Shands, but it’s already been sold.’ On Christmas as I was opening a present from Mary I found, to my complete surprise, that she had bought me that piece by Ken Price!”
Al had spent time in Washington, D.C., when he was in prep school and was “always attracted to museums. The wonderful thing about it then was that you could have the whole place to yourself,” he says. “At the Phillips Collection, which was then in the domestic setting of the Phillips’ home, there were hardly any guards. It was dark with spotlights on the paintings. That’s affected the way I do lighting in my house.
“Phillips had tremendous taste, things were available then and he had the money. There are no fillers at all. Each picture projected you into a new world. They weren’t like wallpaper. I didn’t realize how the experience affected me until I collected myself.”
He continues, “Isabella Stewart Gardner and Duncan Phillips did the right thing for their time, but life goes on, it doesn’t stop at a moment in time. Our architect knew the direction we were taking and built a house that could accommodate that.
“We commissioned pieces, and I invite the artists to spend a weekend here or it could [be] just to wander around. I then ask them where they think their piece should go. Before you buy or commission something, you have to know where the artist is coming from. Once you’re convinced they’re creative, it’s exciting to let them go. I like to get into their psyche. ‘Why did you do what you did?’ There are about 14 commissions in and around the house.”
He says, “There’s a lot of great art out there, but I don’t want to live with it. I want stuff I want to live with in my house. I want art that makes me come back to it. One of the reasons I come back to a piece
is because the artist hasn’t completed the connection of the yang and the yin. If a piece is too finished, it loses its magnetism.
“Since the Sol LeWitt is in my office,” he continues, “I spend a lot of time with it. Once I think I know what he was up to, I find something new.
“I love this retreat that art provides,” he explains. “On the other hand, I worry that I’ve cut myself off from the rest of life. I live at the end of a mile-long driveway far from the disturbances of life. But art can propel you into the uncertainties, difficulties and contradictions in the world that inspired the artists.”
He welcomes groups to the house and often takes on the role of docent. He says, “The art belongs to anyone who wants to look at it. I learn by talking with the people who come to look.”
As an Episcopal priest, he ran a house church in Louisville for 35 years. “There were always about 15 people,” he explains. “It was all based on discussion. I always left somewhat different for something someone said. Something changed me.”
In 2016, he set up the Great Meadows Foundation to give travel grants to
Kentucky artists. He noticed there were few Kentucky artists in the collection and concluded that local artists had become insular and had little contact with the art world beyond where they lived and worked. Announcing the inaugural grants, the foundation noted, “Supporting artists from across the state, the grants will enable recipients to travel to visit conferences, major exhibitions, art fairs and biennials, and to connect with professionals in the field whose expertise can help them develop their practice.”
Julien Robson, former curator of contemporary art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, became curator of Shands’ collection in 2012 and is now director of the foundation. Much of Shands’ collection is bequeathed to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, where he is a trustee emeritus. Other pieces will go to the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. He feels he is only the temporary custodian of the art. It will take on a new life in the context of the museum where it will belong “to anyone who wants to look at it.”
1The three sculptures in front of the house are, from left, Jaume Plensa’s White Shadow, 2009; Alice Aycock’s Sculpture A (Maelstrom), 2012; and Alyson Shotz’s Axis of Rotation, 2007.2Petah Coyne’s photograph, Stream Monk, 1997, hangs in the entrance foyer. Descending Heel, 1988, by Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007), is on the right. The ceramics are, from left, Clues, 1979, by Joe Bova; Shore, 1985, by Robert Chapman Turner (1913-2005); Momo, 2000, by Toshiko Takaezu (19222011); Palette coffee service. Touching and Holding, 1986, by Andrew Lord; Nascent Spiral Form, 1980s by Tom Marsh (1934-1991); Stack, 1981, by Peter Voulkos (1924-2002).
3Above the sofa in the sitting room/library is Creatures of Arboria, 1984, by Roy De Forest (1930-2007). Above the fireplace is Terry Winters’ Ratio, 1992. In the niche are ceramic pieces by Adrian Saxe, from left, Antelope Jar, 1983, and Mortar Bowl, 1984. On the table are two small works by Oksana Todorova from her Guston Series, 2015, and Dale Chihuly’s Seaform Set, 1983.4Looking from the gallery into the living room are Descending Heel, 1988, by Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007); Javier Pérez’s Cúmulo, 2001; Francesca DiMattio’s Shunga, 2016; and, in the distance, Tony Cragg’s two-part sculpture Bestückung, 1987-88.5Petah Coyne’s installation, Al’s Garden, 1992-97, hangs in the dining area. Other work includes, from left, Richard Deacon’s sculpture Before My Very Eyes #3, 1989; Jonathan Borofsky’s painting 2,841,780 Painting with Hand Shadow, 1983; and a print Two To Go, 1981, by Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017). The furniture was designed by architect David Morton (1941-2003).6In the second floor walkway are, to the left, Matthew Metzger’s painting Mountain and River, 2014, and Kibong Rhee’s painting Vertical Memory.
7#1082: bars of color, 2003, by Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), covers the walls and ceiling of Al Shands’ office. The two Bibendum chairs are by Eileen Gray (1878-1976).8The walls of a bedroom are covered by a wall painting, Forest of Dreams, 2016, by American artist Odili Donald Odita. On the shelf are ceramic works by, from left, Bill Stewart, Wayne Ferguson and Aurore Chabot. On the floor is a wood turned vessel by Edward Moulthrop (1916-2003).9The master bedroom contains a commissioned installation work by Betty Woodman (1930-2018) titled From a Loggia in Tuscany, 1994, plus two carved wood sculptures by folk artist Donny Tolson, Jacob Wrestling the Angel, 1982, at left, and Man and Woman, 1981, to the right.10At the back of the house with Mary Carothers’ sculpture Beneath the Surface, 2016.11Reinstalling Richard Long’s sculpture Slate Atlantic, 2002, Delabole slate. It is 420 inches in diameter.
12Al Shands in the kitchen. Above is Peppers and Onion, 1983, by Mary Ann Currier (1927-2017). On the counter is a glazed earthenware bowl, 1983, by Andrea Gill.13Maya Lin’s landmark Kentucky Line, 2006 is in the foreground. Alex Hartley’s contemporary folly, A Gentle Collapsing, 2015, is in the distance.