Ruby in the Rough
Art and photography come together in one stunning collection on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
When our collectors married in 2010, she thought his house was “a little too much him.” The first thing of hers to arrive was a 110-year-old Steinway her parents gave her on her 10th birthday. Since then, they have collaborated on building a collection of art that might have surprised both of them when they first got together. His rods, reels and trophy heads, and his Native American artifacts, now live harmoniously with American impressionist paintings and the complete set of 20 volumes and 20 photogravure portfolios of Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian, 1907 to 1930. “We both have to like something a lot,” she says. “Sometimes he’ll ask, ‘Do you mind if I go for this?’ The majority of the work we both really like.”
Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1887 where he became acquainted with the Native population. His first Indian portrait was of Chief Seattle’s daughter, Princess Angeline. “I paid the princess a dollar for each picture I made,” Curtis recalled many years later. “This seemed to please her greatly, and she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures taken to digging clams.” His interest in making portraits expanded. The collector explains, “Curtis rescued a group of naturalists who were climbing Mount Rainier, one of whom was Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry. Pinchot introduced him to Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote the introduction to the first volume and encouraged J.P. Morgan to underwrite Curtis’s passion.
“I first saw his photogravures at my grandmother’s house in Maine. But they were later stolen,” the collector continues. “Granny Merrill was big on Indians and Indian lore. She and I would hunt for arrowheads along the brook in the church woods. We had serious discussions about whether a particular rock had been ‘worked,’ and, if so, for what purpose—perhaps a knife or a hide scraper. Or perhaps just a chip from an apprentice fletcher who had not yet attained the skill to make something that an elderly woman and a small boy could identify as a lethal weapon. After I moved West, I would occasionally send her points of jasper and obsidian, jewels in comparison to the workings we collected by her stream. They would all be placed in a glass topped curio table, to be visited and discussed whenever I was East.
“I’ve always fantasized that she was one of the original subscribers to Curtis’s portfolios, but I haven’t been able to
make the connection. One of Curtis’s difficulties was that it took so long for him to produce the books that subscribers disappeared,” the collector adds. “When he began photographing, with the exception of the Pueblos and the tribes of the northwest coast and Alaska, most tribes had been reduced to living on reservations.
“I came to the Northwest in 1974 to attend law school and moved to Seattle in 1977,” he says. “My wife was born here but grew up in Portland, Oregon.” Both are ardent conservationists and have served on the board of the Trust for Public Land.
Her book club had read Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis which she introduced to her husband. “I knew he had some history with Curtis and had bought gravures as gifts,” she explains. “When I first came to the northwest,” he says, “I hunted and fished in Nez Perce country. It was a quintessentially romantic experience. The book rekindled my interest in Curtis.” She adds, “We got in touch with Lois Flury and her daughter Melissa here in Seattle who went on a
hunt for the entire collection. She found a set at Christie’s in New York where it hadn’t sold. We took a trip to New York and eventually agreed to acquire it.”
He adds, “I also bought a few of the copper plates that were used in the photogravure process to show what Curtis had to go through back then.”
The couple have done three major remodels of their Bainbridge Island home including the creation of a library to contain the collection and to allow individual images to be displayed. They had frames made that allow them to shift out the photogravures from time to time.
Art goes way back in his family. A friend of his great-grandparents commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint a portrait of them for their wedding. The double portrait is considered one his best. Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, 1897, now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“My wife likes impressionist art and I like history and wanted pieces reflecting the Northwest,” he says. “His first painting gift to me was Butler’s Poplars Along the Seine,” she adds. “I couldn’t afford a Monet,” he comments, but “Butler married Monet’s step-daughter, so I got close.”
“I met Allan Kollar, the well-regarded Seattle dealer. He shares my passion for birds. When I wanted to buy something out of my range for my wife, Allan hung four or five paintings in his gallery. When she walked in, I knew exactly what she would choose.” She chose By the Water’s Edge by Karl Albert Buehr which had been in a collection earlier assembled by Kollar. “It’s my favorite painting,” she says.
“When I first started out I wanted artists from the Northwest,” he says. “I would go to auction houses looking for that ruby in the rough. I bought my first James Everett Stuart at auction, a scene of Tacoma and Mount Rainier. I took it to a dealer and asked, ‘What do you think?’ The dealer said, ‘Did you look at it under a black light?’ The black light reveals later overpainting. He said, ‘There’s not much left that was painted by the artist!’ It was the start of an education. I taught myself to be less impetuous.”
When the collector first moved to Seattle he was befriended by an elderly couple. For years he had admired Coming Home, a scene of Alaska by Eustace Paul Ziegler, that hung over their fireplace. When their son was settling their estate, he called the collector to ask if he would like to buy it. It now hangs in the couple’s dining room.
Among the contemporary artists in the collection is Michael Coleman. “I like art because the artist sees things I never see or sees them in a way that strikes a chord. Michael Coleman is great at painting reflected light in an outdoor setting. We stopped to visit him at his studio in Utah, and I commented on that. Coleman told me, ‘I know how to do this because when I was 16 I ran a trap line in the winter to pay for college. I know what the light looks like because I have been there at ever time of day in every weather condition.’”
“I’ve never thought of this as a collection,” he explains. “Its eclectic nature reflects the various iterations of my life. A lot of what I bought when I was younger I wouldn’t buy now. But if I can’t tell you why I like living with a piece, tell me to get rid of it.”
The couple’s house suits their interests and has its own history. “It’s on the site of a really old community,” he explains. “It’s a rustic house with comforts that match my interests. I can step outside and go rowing, train my dogs, and chase my wife’s chickens out of my vegetable garden. I wake up every day and enjoy it. We both like coming home.”
Gorgeous water views from a collector’s home in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
The couple created a library for the complete 20-volume set and 20 photogravure portfolios of The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). The three copper plates were used to print the photogravures in the bound volumes. The framed works are, left to right, Lawyer, Nez Perce, 1905; Nez Perce Warrior, 1905; and Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, 1903. On the flanking shelves are Crow Camp, circa 1985, and, on the right, Divorce, 2003, by Michael Coleman.
In the trophy room of the guest house is a collection of late-19th-century beaded and quilted Sioux teepee bags, pipe bags and other items, and early-20th-century Navajo weavings. At either end of the wall are paintings by Russell Chatham from 1989 and 1990.
In the entry is By the Water’s Edge by Karl Albert Buehr (1866-1952). On the left is Rocks Along the New England Coast, 1871, by Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886).