Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Two fine-art collectors talk about their passion

A collage of paintings by Chris Vance over the fireplace creates a mural effect in the Damstetters’ living area.
Catherine Leigh "Charlie" Damstetter has only two pieces in her art collection. But everyone has to start somewhere and Charlie is, after all, only 5 months old.

"Collecting is for every age," says her doting granddad, Bob Damstetter, a collector himself, who bought the Chris Vance paintings for Charlie one while she was still just a twinkle in her daddy's eye.

"I actually bought 'Fhat-Ass Duck' and put it away to save for a grandchild. Then we decided, what the heck, and gave it to our son anyway. When we did, they announced they were pregnant."

Art for every inch By contrast, Dennis Atherton Wellmark employee by day, art geek 'round the clock didn't get serious about collecting until he was about 28. Twenty years later, his 650-square-foot apartment near downtown is full of paintings, photographs, glass pieces and bits of memorabilia and ephemera that have caught his eye. Some of the photographs are his own artwork. Two storage units hold more treasures. "I have to rotate my art," Atherton says, sounding somewhere between sheepish and gleeful.

Large abstract paintings cover the living-room walls; photos and smaller works line the hallway. More 2-D pieces lean against the baseboards throughout the apartment and deep windowsills display small sculptures. A humble Cadillac hubcap shares space with paintings worth thousands.

"I try to make a statement without shouting too loudly," Atherton says. "I like to be surrounded by books and art; I like a curious mix of things." Hence the glass sculpture snuggled up to a cheapo gold picture frame draped with his late mother's gold wristwatch holding a jukebox song label beneath cracked glass.

Atherton's collecting habits are more spontaneous than planned. Things either speak to him or they don't. "I just know," he says, about how he picks his art. His collection has no theme besides eclecticism.

All Iowa Damstetter (Charlie's grandfather), and his wife Laura are nearly 40 years into their romance with art. They bought their first piece before they were married, a Karl Christiansen ceramic piece that caught their eye at an art show.

There are two "rules" in the Damstetter collecting handbook: One, the couple must agree on a purchase, and two, the artist has to have an Iowa connection. Both the rules have been bent from time to time. Bob does most of the bending of the first rule, and those acquisitions are generally hung in his office.

As for the second rule, the couple agreed that their collecting project needed an overarching theme. "Over time," Bob says, "we decided it would be Iowa artists. At times we have loosened that definition ... they just need to have an Iowa affiliation."

Though Bob, vice-president of Marel Townsend Inc., is not an artist, he does have some studio training and some education in art history. But Bob's interest in art pre-dates any of that. As a kid in Humboldt, he lived next door to elderly amateur artist Helen McGee, who piqued his interest. "She got me painting. I would have been thirteen, so she would have been...in her eighties! Can you imagine that much patience teaching a teenager to paint when you're eighty-something?" he says incredulously. Those early lessons stayed with Bob, and the Damstetters' art holdings include a small McGee seascape that hangs in their Ankeny sunroom.

The Damstetters' collection spans all different media prints, watercolors, pastels, oils and sculpture and a variety of artists, though most of their works fall into the abstract category, like the large oil by John Phillip Davis that hangs as a focal point in their dining room. Over the fireplace in the living room, fourteen Chris Vance paintings of varying sizes create a sort of mural, a visual story line.

One of his most interesting pieces, Bob says, is by a little-known 30-year-old artist named Knobi. "It is white with strokes of gold and blue. You can just see the motion in it." Though she was born in Nebraska at the Henry Doorly Zoo Knobi the orangutan now lives in Iowa at the Great Ape Trust.

Laura gives the collecting credit to Bob. "I enjoy art, but I'm not the connoisseur that Bob is. I just know what I like. I like the Iowa aspect because the artists are usually someone you can connect with."

Art smart Jackie and T.J. Moberg, co-owners of Moberg Gallery and Gilbert Vicario, curator at the Des Moines Art Center say the key to collecting things that will always hold your attention, and their value, is education. Look, study, read and look some more. "Develop your visual vocabulary," T.J. says.

Jackie says people need to first assess why they're buying art. "Do you need something red to go with a rug? Are you looking for an investment? Does it just make you smile?" The easiest way to narrow down what you really like is by comparison, she says.

If you already have an inkling about what you like, Vicario says, choosing art "is a pretty organic process. With a little guidance, it's not hard."

"The process should be fun, Jackie says. "What you buy should interest you now, next week and next year."

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