The guesthouse/studio is filled with folk art representing southern black artists as well as New Mexico and Navajo artists.
By Manya Winsted
When her favorite duck decoy artist died in 1946, the founder of the Museum of American Folk Art wrote that folk art had ceased to exist. The so-called demise of folk art was blamed on the new reliance on machine-made goods as well as the rise of art education that ran counter to the naiveté at the heart of rural folk art. Consigned to the past, folk art languished like a treasure in the attic.
But as art collectors Chuck and Jan Rosenak discovered in the 1970s, reports of the death of folk art were greatly exaggerated. “The vacuum created between 1946 and 1970 didn’t mean folk art wasn’t being made, just that it was not being collected or exhibited,” the couple says. At the time, the Rosenaks were living in suburban Maryland and working in Washington, DC, as government lawyers he for the Small Business Administration, she for the now defunct Interstate Commerce Commission. Their first love was contemporary art, but as young government lawyers with a family, they didn’t have much money, and contemporary art was expensive.
Santos by New Mexico carvers David Nabor Lucero and Ray Lopez.
It was a chance encounter with the work of Kentucky artist Edgar Tolson at the 1972 Whitney Biennial that set them on the road to a life of collecting. They fell in love with Tolson’s pocket-knife carved wooden figures and soon with the entire contemporary folk art genre. They felt that the work was not cutesy but gritty, honest, sometimes brutally frank, sometimes humorous and it wouldn’t let the viewer turn away untouched. It certainly hit a chord with the Rosenaks. Better yet, they could afford to buy it, since little attention had been given to folk art for well over 20 years. Few galleries sold folk art, and there were not many collectors at the time. So Chuck and Jan began traveling to find the artists themselves.
As they traveled, Jan recalls, “we would visit artists and talk to them as well as buy from them. We collected folk art from everywhere in the country.” Along those many byways and back roads, the couple not only began collecting but also gathering priceless stories as well as Chuck’s compelling black-and-white photographs of the artists in their element.
Their research and knowledge eventually expanded to such a degree that in the late 1980s Robert Bishop, then director of the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY, spurred the Rosenaks to share their discoveries. “We need a book,” he
The western storefront façade of the Rosenak home.
said. Bishop “a wonderful man with great vision,” says Jan went a step further and helped find the couple a publisher, but with that came a great challenge: Abbeville Press gave them just one year to produce an encyclopedia of folk art. The couple met their deadline, and The Museum of American Folk Art Ency-clopedia of 20th-Century American Folk Art and Artists was published in 1990. The landmark volume, which quickly became known as the bible of folk art, represents the work of 255 artists across the country.
Hopi kachinas and works by Navajo artist Silas Claw and New Mexico artist Art Vigil surround the fireplace.
Many also credit the Rosenaks with having “discovered” contemporary Navajo folk art. Certainly they were the first to use the term and write about the taboo-defying, nontraditional art forms they found in sculpture, pottery, and textiles. Their first brush with Navajo folk art came when they visited Santa Fe in 1983 on a house-hunting trip. There, in a tiny display case at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, they saw a few Navajo pieces displayed. “We said to ourselves, ‘this is folk art,’” says Jan. The couple moved to Santa Fe the next year, renting a place to live while they waited for their home to be built. All the while “we did what we always do. We got in the car and started exploring,” she says.
An open display case in the dining room showcases folk artists from the South and Southwest, including S.L. Jones, David Butler, Charles Carrillo,and Steve Ashby.
“A trader by the name of Jack Beasley in Farmington, NM, told us about a few artists, like Johnson Antonio and Mamie de Chillie, who were creating a wholly different kind of art, and we visited other trading posts where we found folk-art pottery,” says Jan. The couple also discovered pictorial rugs near Page, AZ, where “there’s a strip that’s home to four great weavers doing either innovations on tradition or totally new work.” The biggest problem, she says, “was that none of the artists had telephones, so we just had to take a chance and drive to Arizona hoping they were there.”
It’s also interesting that none of the trading posts ever acknowledged or promoted Navajo folk art until the Rosenaks came along; now, as Jan says, “all the trading posts have signs out saying ‘Navajo Folk Art.’” Recently, the couple has begun to collect what they feel will soon be a lost art—the tiny, exquisitely made horsehair baskets of the Papago, or Tohono O’odham as they call themselves, in southern Arizona and Mexico. Sadly, Chuck and Jan say that the selling price is far too little to compensate the weavers for the time and labor involved and that the artists will likely find other means to make a living.
Chuck and Jan Rosenak with a friend created by Navajo Robin Willeto.
Another significant component to their collection is Hispanic folk and religious art of the Southwest, which they began purchasing after moving to their piñon-covered hilltop in Santa Fe. They bought works by the now-well-known carvers Leroy and Felipe Archuleta and saint-makers Marie Romero Cash and Ramón José López, as well as the provocative and sometimes disturbing folk-art creations of Nicholas Herrera.
With so much art, their modest home began to bulge at the seams. Designed by American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen with a whimsical folk-art façade resembling Old West storefronts (complete with board sidewalks), it has a surprisingly contemporary interior. Specially created shelves house the couple’s ever-growing collection. To make more room, the Rosenaks had Jacobsen design a guest house tucked into the hillside—not only to create more space for their art but also to provide a quiet studio where Chuck could write. Jan has established her own office in “the barn,” a structure with a nostalgic façade that hides what was once the garage. The guest house roof has become a fair-weather dining patio occupied by a large, whimsical metal critter by David Strickland and some folk-art mice.
Two years ago, the Rosenaks sent some 220 pieces from their collection to the Smithsonian Museum of Ameri-can Folk Art in a gift/purchase agreement, making it “the foremost repository,” according to the Journal of the Folk Art Society of America, “for contemporary folk and self-taught art in the United States.”
Still, you would never guess their home was lighter by more than 200 pieces, since recent “hunts” have resulted in the addition of more works to the collection. New finds, including many pieces collected during their work on a book on contemporary saint makers, fill display shelves. And the couple continues to expand their realm of interest, collecting prison art and European outsider art, for example.
“We collect what others don’t, like Texas folk art, and we always advise new collectors to look where they live for folk art,” says Jan. Since the Rosenaks began collecting, the folk-art market has grown dramatically. “It’s changed now to wealthy collectors, and folk art is commanding big money in the East,” she says. Pieces the couple paid $20 for are now sometimes commanding $7,000; ones that cost $500 have sold for as much as $30,000. “What we did,” Chuck and Jan explain, “is not possible anymore. Many of the old artists have died, and newer artists are being signed to exclusive contracts, which changes the art.” Still, they never stop traveling off the beaten path for the next new discovery.
The Rosenaks’ Guides to Folk Art
After completing their first book, The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Folk Art and Artists [1990 Abbeville Press], the Rosenaks went on to make collecting and writing their second career. Although they still do some legal consulting, as well as consulting for museums, the better part of their energies has been focused on finding undiscovered treasures and producing three more books: The People Speak: Navajo Folk Art [1994 Northland Publishing], Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector’s Guide [1996 Abbeville Press] and Santeras y Santeros: Contemporary Images [1998 Northland Publishing], featuring 35 New Mexico artists.
In Contemporary American Folk Art, Chuck offers the following advice to collectors: “If you don’t have large resources we never did being ‘there’ at the right time, whether it’s a first one-person show in New York, a weaver’s hogan, or a project apartment, always gives the collector a leg up. Being there, however, requires information, and information always gives the astute collector an edge.”
He also writes of their own collection. “At home, on our ridge in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we are surrounded by tangible memories of where we have been and whom we have met. The art on our walls reminds us of our adventures.”
Featured in July 2000