Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No. 2, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
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Bernard Dubé
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Farzana Hassan
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Laura Hollick
Louise Jalbert
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Purivs Young
William Kinnis & Dominique Tremblay
Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir
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Magie Dominic
Ryan McLelland
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William Noguera
Manita Shine
Ken Matsumoto
Amy Bernays
Howard Finster
Owen York
Rena Meren
David Moore
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the reluctant collector



Carol R. Scott was a freelance writer and communication consultant. Now, in her retirement, she teaches English to adult immigrants from Africa, Asia, Central and South America and the Middle East.


“I’d like to introduce you to Carol Scott. She’s a collector,” Franklin Robinson, then President of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, said as he introduced me to a board member using that designation. The occasion was a retrospective -- “Prints Between The Wars” that included 29 pastels, paintings and drawings from the estate of American artist Mabel Lisle Ducasse (1895-1976) of which I owned over 500.

I had never thought of myself as a collector, although I’ve worn many hats: free-lance writer, consultant, ad copy person, executive and sometimes chief in charge of PR, I’m not an artist; art simply gives me pleasure.

I hadn’t set out to be a collector. I am neither particularly acquisitive nor wealthy enough to afford an important collection. But somehow, I inherited two major collections: the paintings and drawings of Mabel Ducasse and the historic photographs of Arthur Swoger. I never met Mabel Ducasse and only briefly got to know, before his death, Arthur Swoger.

My passion for art, my affinity for artists, my sense of aesthetics and confidence in a good eye is a result of my upbringing. I should really say more chutzpah than confidence (everyone else said I was crazy).

My family home featured original paintings, sculptures and beautiful furniture such as early Eames chairs. My parents also personally cared for artists. Ernst Lichtblau (1883-1963), a gnome of a man at 5-feet tall, became an ongoing guest in our first home.

Lichtblau arrived in the US after fleeing Austria and the Germans in the 40s and would later be remembered as founder of the Department of Interior Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. He brought both a European/Viennese and mid-century sensibility to his design, recommended and selected fine furniture, exquisite fabrics for sofas and cushions, proscribing their placement according to colour, shape and style. We lived with built-in shelves and drawers inspired by geometrical art of Mondrian with flat matte-like squares of colour, cork floors, an abundance of wood, chrome ,paintings and prints by local artists. An appreciation for art became second nature.

And at the age of 20, when I left my husband, with babe in arms, a crib, a minimum wage job at a local art gallery, and a “ family” of artist friends, I knew that furnitureless as I was, my first apartment adornments would be paintings and drawings .

I started collecting paintings and sculpture some 50 years ago. My first purchase, by an artist/sculptor who would later become my lover, was a beautiful drawing of entwined lovers. Priced $75 and paid in increments of $5 a month, was a big investment at the time but I just couldn’t resist.

Over the years, I continued collecting – very slowly indeed. I attended exhibitions, wrangled invitations to salons and often posed for paintings and sculpture. I soon had a modest collection of contemporary New England art that fit nicely into the apartment and would grow larger as I moved into larger spaces. Because artists were my friends, I was often portrayed in their work. Quick pastel portrait sketches and bas-reliefs of my face in many forms, bronze torsos that resembled miniature versions of wooden sculptures found on the prow of ancient ships are only some examples. Later I added portraits of others, landscapes and sculptures.

So how did such a modest assemblage evolve into an overabundance of art now spilling out of the attic and bursting closets at their seams and leaving not an inch of wall space for the calendar? The answer is an adventure story that includes murder, mayhem and a rough patch of disengagement and depression.

My thirties were marked by the deaths of friends, young and old. One friend killed himself in anger, found hanging by his wife after an argument. Another at 35 was done in by diabetes and drink. Though warned, she died a year after she fell into a coma. A cousin swerved to avoid a rabbit – was tossed from his car – died instantly as did the rabbit. A 19- year-old set herself on fire; no one really knows why. There were more; twelve in all, so many who would be “un-remembered.”

The last was Norma Rainone, a neighbour and friend, who was shot in a robbery outside her back door. During those three sad years before she was murdered, I ran into her occasionally. When I did she would talk about boxes of a friend's paintings she had stored in her attic. They would be thrown out, she explained, could I help her mount a show or do some PR? Overwhelmed, I said no.

After her death, repenting my harshness, I spent days with Edward, her lover, emptying her fridge, listening to CDs of her reading the poetry of a university acquaintance, sending remembrances to people she loved -- a process of mourning that felt comforting and complete. We worked together, packing his things for his escape to an island/country named Saba. Finally we came to the boxes.

We were stunned as we went through each box and discovered the life’s work of one artist from childhood to death. There were six boxes in all. We thought we might find a few dozen paintings Shocked, we found 500 pastels, oils, etchings and fine pastels carefully inserted between the pages of old, extra-large sized Life magazines.

The quality was staggering. Hopperesque women from the 1920s wearing silk stockings and cloches, blowing smoke rings in the air. A solitary woman on a bench waiting for a train perhaps -- the viewer doesn’t know. A turbaned beauty applying makeup with pastel so thick one would swear it truly resembled lipstick. Nature studies of flowers, cicadas, worms, butterflies and moths magnified 100 times which all reminded us of the work of Georgia O’Keeffe

There were letters, articles and documents confirming that Mabel was a graduate of the Art Student’s League and Pratt Institute in New York and from the University of Washington. We learned that she was the first person in the United States to receive a Master of Fine Art.

We found clippings that attested to her brilliance and exhaustive knowledge of art. She had been the art critic columnist for what was then The Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s largest news outlet in the early 1900s.

What is your plan, I asked Edward? Donate it to the Providence Art Club, he said. They had shown an interest. No, I objected, fearing the collection would be buried in this somewhat exclusive club’s cellar. Edward agreed and passed the collection onto me. I became re-engaged with life. Though Ducasse was unknown to me, I knew that unlike my lost friends this would be one person whose work and life would not be forgotten.

I photographed the work and traveled it around. The RISD museum (Rhode Island School of Design) booked a show two years ahead. The Vose Gallery of Boston was impressed and encouraging, but pastels, I learned, were not its thing because pastel drawings are more difficult to maintain and sell. The Newport Art Museum and Rotch Duff Jones House and Garden Museum and several private galleries planned shows down the line.

I plunged, feet first, into researching and learned that Mabel moved twice to Rhode Island (doomed to live in Rhode Island, she said) as she followed first one (a philanderer) then another husband (a philosophy professor) to the State. Brown University -- where her husband taught and the institution to whom she had bequeathed her possessions, said her art had no value – accepted the house she designed, her easel, pastels and furniture but made it clear they would not keep her art.

It took years of persistence to see Mabel’s art recognized but now there are 1,700 entries when one googles her name. Her work hangs in the homes of my friends, in several museums and galleries across the country. Her work, so far, is surviving the test of time.

For the most part, the Ducasse work has been returned to Seattle and is frequently exhibited at the Martin–Zambito Fine Art gallery close to where she lived and went to school. There, David Martin and Dominic Zambito, gallery owners and collectors of collections write about her and other lesser known artists and their historical place in northwestern regional art. But not all of her work is there: the lipstick lady is in the RISD museum; a portrait of her friend Anne Louise Strong can be found at the Florida International University as part of the Wolfsonian Collection; breathtaking still life works can be found at the Denver Museum and in the homes of many friends and also strangers.

I’ve kept some of her work. One of my favourites is a WWI patriotic rendering of a mother rocking her child next to a gold-starred window while waiting for a soldier/husband who will never come. Two others speak to my love of the outdoors and the unusual: one features a spectacular oversized caterpillar making its way across two pompom blossoms; the other an equally large and rather monstrous worm resting on tomato plant leaf.

Mabel Ducasse was not the only collection I came upon under odd circumstance. Decades later, the photographer Arthur Swoger and his writer wife, Rachel, were living down the hill from my 1724 house in the small town of East Greenwich. I met them briefly through friends before Arthur died.

He was handsome and, most often, sweet – but ill and feeble at that time; she was vigorous, outspoken, wryly funny and very impatient.

In his 80s, Arthur became cranky, demanding and ever more frequently in and out of hospitals until a discouraged Rachel finally arranged to put him in a home. As Arthur raged on in a senior’s citizen home, Rachel and I connected. My dog, Mariah and her cat brought us together as more than neighbours. It started when my dog lunged toward her cat. The leash held, Rachel forgave me and we became Scrabble friends.

And that’s how I became acquainted with Arthur Swoger’s large and magnificent photographs of animals, insects, flowers and mushrooms, much of it commissioned by National Geographic. The Swogers had made their home in Greenwich Village, the heart of where the arts and artists thrived from the 40s through the 80s. Fun-loving, bohemian people, often visiting the Cedar Tavern (affectionately nicknamed the Bar), and known as the “living room” by some of the greatest abstract expressionists, writers and critics of their time, Arthur had taken hundreds of un-posed photos of every one.

Notable subjects included Jackson Pollack, Willem and Elaine DeKooning, Salvador Dali, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Harold Rosenberg and many more. Scenes ranged from a rather drunk Franz Kline necking at the bar with an anonymous beauty, to critics arguing philosophy (or so it seemed) and quiet dignified views of tableside chats between the deKoonings, Frank O’Hara, Mercedes Matter etc. Rachel shared the story of her years of anger, all the years she supported them so that Arthur could pursue his art. An artist herself, she had little time to follow her heart, always held a 9-5 to pay the family keep and was left with many painful memories she preferred to put aside. While walking Mariah every day, I’d find boxes of Arthur’s notebooks, photos, negatives and sketches put out for trash. I waited a month before I told Rachel that I had picked up every box, examined his work carefully and was convinced I could sell it and help her get out of debt.

What I didn’t sell of Arthur’s work stays mostly in my closet, the negatives of mid-century artistic celebrities in waiting. The slides of mushrooms and other nature studies have not yet found a home. One, a close-up of coupling grasshoppers, hangs in my home next to my first purchase - the entwined lovers - above my bed. I'm hopeful that one day an appropriate library, museum or other interested institution will request a donation.

Works by Arthur’s wife Rachel, who did not paint until she retired, have been added to my original collection. An elegant and colourful watercolour of hers sits over the mantel and a nude self-portrait called Valentine hangs over a dresser.

And of course, my walls and surfaces remain covered with art. As I’ve aged and traveled, I’ve added small pieces to the existing collection: a coffee root sculpture purchased at a Costa Rican roadside stand; a hand-carved wooden duck given me by a Balinese wood carver; an Ethiopian clay figures from Israel; a copy of a watercolour of friends’ home and pond south of Paris where I once stayed.

It’s the memories that give meaning to my life now. So I’ve kept the long time favourites: two architectural photos by my daughter Diane, the figurehead and bas-relief I once posed for, a drawing owned by my parents, a bronze horsewoman inspired by a friend and an oil of a single rose created by another.

And of course, most of all, my pride and sense of accomplishment at knowing that my efforts to save and share some wonderful art that would otherwise have been lost have not been in vain. My life has been enriched by all these wonders that grace my surroundings.




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