Natural Evolution

Three very different collections have one thing in common—evolution of collectors’ interests.

By Dina Mishev
Photography by Bradly J. Boner

Mold grew under the carpet of the 600-square foot apartment I rented. Some of the drywall on the ceiling had crumbled, leaving the insulation above exposed. The linoleum floors were uneven. I didn’t see any of this though. All I saw was the painting—an oil of a bucolic rolling countryside done with rough brushstrokes and bold colors—hanging on a wall near the kitchen. It was the first painting I bought as an adult, if you count a twenty-two-year-old as an adult. It was the first piece of artwork I bought that wasn’t a reproduction of an Ansel Adams photo or of a Dali painting. The three years I lived in that apartment, it was the only piece of artwork.

When I moved from the moldy apartment into a condo, this painting, by Rosa Kittsteiner, again hung prominently. Over the nearly twelve years I lived in that condo, I added other pieces. There was a watercolor of a bear from Wild Hands. A miniature from the Art Association’s annual Whodunnit, a silent auction of 6-by-6-inch pieces the artists don’t sign on the front. You don’t know “whodunnit” unless you’re the winning bidder. When traveling, a piece of local art always came home with me.
Most often these were $5 paintings bought in a market.

These pieces had absolutely nothing in common with each other—other than the fact I loved each of them and each had a story behind it or reminded me of a place—so I never thought of them as a collection. Also, “real” collectors didn’t display $3 paintings of a gazelle they bought on a beach in Mombasa, right? Wrong.

Also, “real” collectors didn’t display $3 paintings of a gazelle they bought on a beach in Mombasa, right? Wrong.

“Foremost, a collection should contain works that the owner loves and connects to in some emotional, spiritual or intellectual way,” said Heather James owner and founder Jim Corona. “The art should be beautiful and significant to the collector and be pieces with which the collector wants to live.”

One valley couple that has been collecting art together for 46 years began with a simple approach: “We just bought what appealed to us and what we could afford,” they said. “Our home town was Tulsa, Oklahoma, so we grew up in the shadow of the Gilcrease, Philbrook, and Woolarock art museums. We spent many hours there appreciating the art and learning about the American West. Due to the influence of those collections, we decided early in our marriage to begin collecting original Western art.”z

The first piece the couple bought was at a flea market, an Italian watercolor of a seated old man. “We loved the color palette and subject,” they said. “It cost more to frame than the art itself.” Today their collection includes pieces by Thomas Moran, Frank Tenney Johnson, Clark Kelly Price, Olaf Wieghorst, Carl Rungius, Conrad Schwiering and also numerous pieces of Thomas Molesworth furniture. They said the Italian watercolor “still hangs prominently” though.

“What makes this collection so very interesting is the eclectic mix,” said Maryvonne Leshe, managing partner at Trailside Galleries, which the couple has worked with for decades. “The [couple] have collected some of the most popular contemporary Western and wildlife artists in the country and have also included works by various deceased western masters. The thread that runs throughout their collection is that they have a good eye for high quality, fine art.”

“We loved the color palette and subject. It cost more to frame than the art itself.”
– Anonymous couple on the first piece of artwork purchased

The couple said, “Now we try to be very selective and only buy what we really love.” They said their current favorite subject matter is action—hunting, pack trains, camping, trail rides. “Although our tastes have evolved, we are still on the same page,” they said. “We can walk through a gallery or sit through an auction and invariably agree on the pluses or minuses of each work of art.”

They love their collection so much they had their house here designed around it. “The challenge was placing 1930s and ’40s furniture, rugs, pots, and Western art in a more contemporary log home,” they said. “Chris [Baxter, of Baxter Design Studio] was able to design the perfect backdrop for our collections and the house has become more than a place to showcase art. It is a work of art itself.”

Another valley couple started collecting art sixteen years ago, when they bought an Art Deco apartment in Chicago. They began acquiring work to fit that space. “At first we were just looking for cool pieces,” they said.
“But we fell in love with the art and the process and kept buying and learning.” This couple educated themselves early on by going to museums and art fairs. “And we did research,” they said. “We were autodidactic and explored the art world together. We chose not to work with an art advisor.”

“This collection skews Western for two people who began collecting Modern and European art. But it includes ties to their beginnings as collectors and is completely earnest.”
– Jim Corona, Heather James owner and founder

When the Chicago couple renovated and redecorated their Jackson Hole home, “we decided to focus [that collection] on the turn of the 20th century old West and the beauty of our surroundings,” they said. Their Western collection ranges from Remington to Rungius, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Molesworth, and Stickley. “This collection skews Western for two people who began collecting Modern and European art,” Corona said. “But it includes ties to their beginnings as collectors and is completely earnest.” The couple said “quality and whether or not we both love the piece” are the most important factors in deciding to buy something new. “Our tastes have not really changed. We have expanded our interests, but remain true to our tastes.”

Not that I ever thought about it before—since I never thought of myself as a collector—but I can say the same for my tastes, even if my range has changed. (Recently I got my first abstract work, a mixed-media piece inspired by NASA photographs of the moons of Jupiter by Diehl Gallery artist Monica Aiello.) Most of the pieces in my collection exude energy and have a palette of bright, rich hues. “Gentle” does not describe a single thing on any of my walls. If the art has a sense of humor, all the better. A series of twelve drawings, Superheroes on the Toilet, is in the powder room. Each superhero hangs in its own IKEA frame. Down in the guestroom, that first painting of the countryside still hangs in its original frame.