The Art of Collecting- Meetings that Inspire!
Updated: May 13
The second entry of a series of articles on patrons of the arts- an essay by Brian Keeler
To say that Bill Greener’s collection is eclectic is an understatement, yet there is a vision and authenticity to his art he has purchased over the course of his life. His life in fact, has a history that is as varied and far reaching as his collection.
Bill recently purchased a second painting from me, after I had a chance encounter with him in the parking lot of the Fed Ex office and he asked me what I was working on. A relatively new painting that I told him about happened to be a nocturne view of the previous oil he bought a couple of years ago. Both of these are views of an intersection in the little town of Stonington, Maine, which I have been visiting and painting for many years. This street scene includes an old Mobil gas station with a Lobster Co-op sign, a church and view toward the ocean. It appealed to me probably for similar reasons both versions caught Bill’s interest. The view has a kind of timeless quality to it that goes beyond the specifics of place, yet is representative of a small town on the coast.
So when I delivered this new work Bill graciously walked around the interior of his house located outside of Ithaca while sharing anecdotes about the art, recollections of where he acquired them, stories about the artists, and how he felt about each one. Sometimes, certain works still inspire long looks and admiration. One of his personal leitmotifs for owning these pieces was that he has to be able to feel that he could enter any given image. He likes to imagine himself entering into the depictions.
His collection represents paintings, etchings, watercolors and sculpture by artists who have made a career of their art as well as individuals who are drawn to making visual expressions for purely personal reasons. To me this adds to the appeal and richness. Several of these artists I know personally and admire their work. James Ramsdell shows at the West End Gallery where I exhibit too and we’ve had a show or two together there. For years Jim and I were in a life drawing group at SUNY Binghamton. Carlton Manzano, a plein air painter like myself, is represented by two paintings in Bills home. There is also a wonderful landscape of Keuka Lake by Bill Deats, another Ithaca painter.
The etchings in Bill’s collection are of special interest as they are quality pieces of an intimate and small scale. One etching of ducks in a street scene is of the postage stamp-size, similar to those many self-portrait etchings by Rembrandt. Such a great deal of articulation is rendered in these etchings. When we see Rembrandt’s etchings reproduced in a book, and then see the originals at his house-museum in Amsterdam, we are frequently impressed by the minute delicacy of the scale. Part of this collection of small prints includes an etching by the 20th century American artist, Grant Wood. Grant Wood is one of my favorite regionalist artist and viewing his retrospetive a few years ago at the Whitney Musuem was nothing short of exhilarating.
Bill had his house built to his design and it has a wonderful feel to it, a nice Feng Shui we might say. Even though most of his walls are full, the feel is not crammed. In fact his bedroom has a rather austere if not Zen-like simplicity to it. A reproduction in that room of Bougereau’s Satyr and Nymphs has long been one of my favorite works. I’ve visited and sketched the original at the Clark Institute many times. But this work has a special location in the house as it catches the warm hues of the morning sun, which Bill says renders this work with an other-worldly glow. He showed be a photo of this light, and indeed it did seem to allow for a special intensified radiance of chroma.
At one point Bill paused our tour and asked me to listen to the sound coming from a small ashtray with a movable flap. He said, listen to it until it stops. This antique from his grandmother's collection created a sound diminution that gradually faded away. This was similar to the gong sounded at meditiation centers, as it forces ever more attentive listening.
To see how people live and relate to their art has special appeal to me and that is why I enjoy learning about their motives and how the various works continue to offer an emotional and intellectual reward. We could say they pay off in dividends that are not calculable by numbers.
Eventually we walked outside to view a wonderful wooden sculpture of a standing female nude that is titled, “Cherry Baby” primarily for the wood used. Bill got this piece, a chainsaw carving by an unknown artist around 1981 when he had a farm near Wellsville, NY This carved woman overlooks the beautiful landscape from the hill where Bill’s house is located.
From there, more excitement ensued but from an entirely different type collection, vintage automobiles. As I relived some memories and experienced some new revelations with the art inside the house, the garage offered a real trip down memory lane of a special kind for me. When Bill opened the door to the first garage, there was a beautiful deep blue 1972 Saab. This was the same model and year that my mother had purchased and let me use when I was in art school. These Saabs were of unique personality with so many unusual aspects that It is difficult to name them all.
In the next garage- I knew we had hit the jackpot of exquisite roadsters. And like the Saab, several had personal memories that were associated with cars of the same make. For example the beautiful cream colored Porsche of late 50’s in this garage, brought back memories when I drew portraits in Wildwood, NJ in the summers during art school. A girlfriend there had one and she’d let me drive it occasionally. Each car was immaculate and some in mint condition. Bill reminisced about each, explained about their engines, provenance and restorations. One car had an engine that I’d never heard of before- a W-12. We’ve all heard of V-6’s, inline 6’s or V-12, or maybe even transverse V-8’s etc., but a W-12, who would've thunk?
We paused between the garages to look at Bills own creative endeavors, which was a little garden area of rock assemblages. These small totems of fieldstone were constructed into creative groupings balanced dynamically with no mortar or bolts etc.
As mentioned above Bill’s life has included a range of endeavors that matches his varied collection. Originally from Rochester, NY he received his BS in physics at Canisius College in Buffalo and an MS in Optical Engineering at the institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. And finally a JD was earned at SUNY Buffalo.
When I first met Bill, quite a few years ago he was working as a lawyer here in Ithaca. I knew Bill from the Cajun and Zyedeco dance scene. Lately Bill has continued with his diverse interest by serving as judge one day a week at the Newfield Town Hall, working 16 hours a week at Top’s Market in the fish department and taking care of his property. Somewhere in there, before moving to Ithaca, he had a life as a farmer in Steuben County, NY.
One final area of connection that Bill and I shared was travel to some of the same places including Italy where Bill visited the Piedmont area of the northwest on several road trips and collected art from this area as well.
In the end we can see how patrons and collectors like Bill complete and further the narrative and meaning of art. When a piece of sculpture or a painting enters a home it then becomes part their matrix of significance. I know when I see my paintings in a new context and part of a living space it provides a special completion- but one that grows with the collector rather than being a finality.