The Collector’s Issue | Immersed in Art


By Todd Wilkinson

Every art collector has a different approach to collecting. Some enlist the
assistance of consultants and rarely make decisions themselves. Near the other end of the spectrum are those who pay regular visits to galleries, religiously attend art openings, and exchange holiday greeting cards with artists. And then there is the utterly passionate approach of the Colorado collectors whose home is shown on these pages.

The couple, who reside in metropolitan Denver, have literally taken their zeal for art to new heights. “Our collecting has led us to places we might
never have gone to otherwise,” the wife says. To stay connected with some
of their favorite plein-air painters, for example, last summer they accompanied Prix de West award-winner Tucker Smith and a few of his talented colleagues on a pack trip. It was far from a stroll through the park: The group rode nearly 20 miles on horseback into the heart of Wyoming’s Wind River range. The goal was to revisit some of the old haunts of master wildlife artist Carl Rungius, who painted numerous landscapes and wildlife scenes there early in the 20th century. As a writer who specializes in art and nature, I got to go along.

Base camp was at 10,500 feet. One day I joined Smith and the collectors in scrambling up a steep slope, over terrain best suited for mountain goats, to make a field study of a lake never before painted. For the next week, we watched paintings unfold, talked art around a remote campfire, rubbed shoulders with other painters, and gathered first-hand evidence to support Smith’s reputation as the modern master of the Wind River mountains.


The collectors hope to acquire one of the small landscape studies Smith hauled out of the wilderness after he uses it to complete a larger painting in the studio. This newest acquisition will be yet another point on a friendship continuum, which began decades ago when they purchased a Smith painting called Calving Time in the dawn of their collecting. “We’ve gotten acquainted with some of our favorite artists, and several have become good friends,” notes the husband.

Today the couple’s collection has grown to about 90 works, and the quest
for another reason to buy a painting or bronze is embraced as part of a wonderful journey. The couple has amassed an impressive collection of western paintings and sculpture that tastefully complements their elegant home. They own significant works by living painters and sculptors including Richard Schmid, Bob Kuhn, Glenna Goodacre, Kent Ullberg, and Hollis Williford.

As they’ve sharpened their focus and expanded their net-work of art-world
friends, the collectors have added several works by deceased artists like Frank Tenney Johnson, Robert Lougheed, and Donald Teague. When they built their home more than a decade ago, they worked with architects to design specific wall spaces and a lighting system to showcase their art-works. And while friends praise the welcoming atmosphere of their home, the quality of their selections makes it seem more like a museum.

The couple built their collection around a core group of plein-air painters, though they admit the definition is loosely applied. Half of their paintings are either done en plein air, done by plein-air painters, or born from field studies. For them, the term “plein air” applies to artists who insist upon absorbing from real life the sensations that inspire their work. “It may sound trite, but I think it’s the spontaneity that appeals to us,” the wife explains. “We don’t really collect plein-air intentionally, but many of the paintings we are drawn to have that quality. You might say we collect a sort of impressionistic realism. In part, we collect for the subject matter representations of places we love, have been, or hope to go.”


Their first field trip with an artist, which the husband took alone, was in
1988 with Smith and had as its objective trying to figure out where Rungius
painted certain vistas and why. In the years since, the couple and Smith have turned Wind River treks into regular summer outings and invited other artist friends, including Clyde Aspevig, Carol Guzman, Christopher Blossom, Jim Morgan, and Ned Mueller.

“We have watched representational artists paint the same subject and
yet interpret it differently,” the wife says. “We have been in spectacularly beautiful places and have seen the artists record it. All of us saw and appreciated our surroundings and we all tried to capture the feeling and grandeur of the scenery in our memories and with our cameras. Somehow the artists were able to record it better in their field studies.”

Two years after the husband’s inaugural excursion, the couple carried
their intrepid passion for observing firsthand how paintings come to life across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland, where they and 11 friends rented Lismore Castle in County Waterford. A pair of small studies in their home, completed by Smith and Coloradoan Wayne Wolfe, provide a daily reminder of their trip. Sometimes, the wife notes, they’ve even become the subjects of paintings, as in the case of another Smith painting that portrays dudes sitting around a campfire. The cowboy-hatted husband served as a model.

Collecting art, they say, has enhanced their aesthetic enjoyment as travelers in both wild and civilized locales. They’re more aware of the elemental moods that landscapes offer, they notice the ever-changing light, and they’ve become connoisseurs of color. No longer do they rush through new settings but take their time and try to savor the subtle nuances with the vision of a painter. “We go to art museums in every town we visit no matter how small it is—the
town or the museum—because we love to look at art. The art on our walls is a mirror of our lives,” the husband says, adding that they’re better interpreters of nature now, too.

Among the couple’s works is a plein-air study of a fox by Lougheed; it is complemented by a studio painting of a fox by Kuhn as a tribute to the foxes in their Denver neighborhood. Other gems on the walls are a Spanish scene by Teague, a Chinese landscape by William Reese, a portrait titled Tina and Amy by Schmid, and a cabin scene by Johnson painted near the site of the collectors’ cabin retreat in Cooke City, MT.


The couple has also cultivated a special affection for cottonwood trees, which
are not only resilient living totems but also represented hope for thirsty human travelers in the arid West of days gone by. Their fascination is reflected in a painting titled Cottonwoods on the Bobcat by Clyde Aspevig. “We’re fond of the painting because it really captures the toughness and beauty of these magnificent old trees,” the wife says. The work was completed at the ranch in Wyoming owned by former U.S. senator Alan Simpson, where his daughter, Susan—owner of Simpson Gallagher Gallery in Cody, WY—has hosted some of the West’s finest plein-air painters.
It reinforces the notion that a painting is not just a great work of art but
a testament to the value of personal relationships forged with artists and gallery owners.

Besides blending travel and art collecting, the collectors subscribe to the usual regimen of looking out for new works. They are regulars at such yearly exhibitions as the Prix de West Invitational, the Cowboy Artists of America show, the miniatures show at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and the Buffalo Bill Art Show.

At a recent show, they encountered a younger gentleman who lamented that he had only begun acquiring art and “had a lot of catching up to do.” The couple’s advice to younger collectors, though, is to be discriminating and take your time. Personal tastes evolve and change with age. “We never buy a painting for any reason other than its appeal to us,” the wife says. “We don’t consider art an investment, and we almost never sell a painting. If we do, it is because we no longer love it.”

Certainly the value of their collection has appreciated immensely, though for them it has a worth that transcends any appraised dollar amount. The artworks are touchstones in the course of their daily lives, visible as backdrops in family portraits and reminders of shared events that hold a deeper meaning, cutting across generations. Their grown children have, through osmosis, developed their own love of art, and each has a personal favorite. “When the kids are home visiting it’s always fun to watch them stake their claim to a specific painting,” the husband notes, smiling. “In their own minds they’ve already divvied up the art. They have fond memories associated with it, just as we do.”

Featured in October 2002