Ruby in the Rough

Art and pho­tog­ra­phy come to­gether in one stun­ning col­lec­tion on Bain­bridge Is­land, Wash­ing­ton.

Western Art Collector - - LETTER EDITOR FROM THE - By John O’hern

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).

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