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Collections global and local

By Katie Scarvey

Salisbury Post

Collecting at its best is very far from mere acquisitiveness; it may become one of the most humanistic of occupations, seeking to illustrate by the assembling of significant reliques, the march of the human spirit in its quest for beauty…

–Arthur Davison Ficke

Walking into the lovely South Fulton Street home of Will and Mary James, you quickly realize that the owners have traveled and collected extensively. The traveling is the result of Will’s job: he’s an oil and gas attorney who helps governments put in place laws governing utilities.

Will and Mary spent seven years together overseas, living in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the Republic of Georgia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Much of the couple’s collection comes from countries in central Asia that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

Will’s interest in that part of the world was sparked when he read “The Great Game,” a book about the competition between Victorian England and Tsarist Russia, both world powers who were trying to gain a foothold in central Asia. Learning about this fascinating period, filled with espionage and intrigue, motivated Will to learn more about the history of the region, which was a driving force in his collecting.

Will and Mary appreciate the beautiful textiles of Central Asia, including robes called ikats worn by both men and women in Uzbekistan.

“An ikat to me is as colorful and surrealistic as a Dali painting,” said Will in a phone conversation from Monrovia, Liberia, where he is currently working.

The cloth used to make ikats, Will explained, is a combination of silk and cotton, with a silk warp and a cotton weft. The garments are the result of a cooperative industry between different ethnic groups — the Tajiks, who are silk-makers, and the Uzbeks, who make the cotton.

The ikats in the Jameses’ collection pre-date the Russian revolution, with many made before 1900.

Will and Mary have also acquired an impressive collection of Soviet-period paintings from 1817-1970.

“The arts were given major support by the Soviet system,” Will said. “It was one of their tools of propaganda.”

The state dictated the kind of art that artists could create, and “the happy worker” was the most common theme, he said.

Will cultivated his sellers by eschewing negotiation, establishing himself as a serious buyer who would purchase what he wanted without haggling. He became acquainted with a man who sold antiques in a shop at the National Uzbek Museum, who began to call him when things came in he felt Will would be interested in.

Will and Mary also frequented an open-air bazaar in the desert, where women would spread out their wares, selling everything from beautiful suzanis (used as wall hangings or bed coverings) to camels. Will and Mary never bought a camel, but they did return home with an extensive collection of suzanis.

During their time in Turkmenistan, collecting jewelry became a focus. As with their other areas of collecting, Will sought out books and educated himself so that he could collect the most exemplary pieces made by five different tribes, each of which had its own special motifs and style.

When they moved to Africa, they continued to collect, bringing home tribal masks and funeral urns. Among the fascinating items are “passport masks.”

Each tribe had a distinctive style of mask, and when a tribe member traveled, he would carry the small passport mask with him to identify his tribal affiliation.

Mary looks back fondly on the couple’s years spent together overseas.

The experience was “incredibly enlightening and broadening,” she says.

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…a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

— Albert Camus

For Dr. Sam Fort, a collector and an artist himself, natural images are what opened his heart, and that is evident in his extensive collection of art.

“There’s not a lot of separation between my appreciation of art and my appreciation of natural beauty,” says Fort, a dermatologist. Nature is a prominent theme in many of his pieces, which feature natural images such as mountains, waterfalls, butterflies, rabbits and pomegranates.

Nature, says Fort, “goes to your very center.”

In one room of his home, the painting of a cathedral hangs next to the painting of a forest. The pairing was intentional: the forest, for Fort, is just as much a cathedral as a manmade sacred place.

Some of Fort’s favorite images, like the pomegranate, have roots in his past. As a boy in South Carolina, Fort’s family had a “plum granny” tree, one of very few in town.

If money were no object, would there be a particular piece he’d acquire?

“Probably a Van Gogh,” he says, but he adds that if given a choice between Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and a great view, he might just choose the view.

Fort likes to collect pieces by local artists, including Brent Smith, Robert Toth, Robert Crum, Lewellen Padgett, Clyde Overcash, Bert Hawley and Carmela Jarvi.

One of the first artists he collected, back in 1972, was a man named Kenneth Koskela, who now lives in Salisbury. Several of Koskela’s watercolors hang in Fort’s hallway, including “The Poet’s Guests” and “The Fraudulent Seance.” They’re intriguing creations, full of mystery and dark whimsy –evoking the mood of a Lemony Snicket novel.

Fort remembers taking art lessons when he was 6 or 7 years old, and his interest in art has never waned.

When Fort lived in El Paso during the time he was in the military, he began to buy art from Ed Hill, a well-known print seller. He also began to take painting classes, inspired by the striking landscapes of the desert southwest.

He then moved to Tacoma, Wash., and focused on collecting prints. Later, he did several tours of duty in Europe, where he continued to acquire art.

He’s happy to be included in the Waterworks show.

“I love Waterworks,” he says. “Some of my favorite things I’ve bought from exhibits there.”

His favorite piece of art is not his most valuable, by any means. It’s a print he bought in a bookstore as a student — “Un Soir de Carnaval” by Henri Rousseau, a late 19th century artist.

It moved him so much, he says, that he wrote a poem about it. The last line, he recalls, is “Farewell, oh flesh, forever.” To him, the work represents passing beyond the earthly life.

Also appearing as a theme in Fort’s collection are butterflies — a symbol from nature that also suggests metamorphosis and provides an appropriate metaphor for the transformative power of art itself.

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Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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