As part of the Curator’s Choice series I asked the participants if they would describe their favorite piece or ‘the one that got away.’ There are those pieces that haunt all collectors, which for some reason or another were not acquired when they were available. Those pieces in some ways live on in a memory that takes on even more value than they might have if they had been purchased. Linda Ross from Royal Oak, Michigan, owned Sybaris Gallery for seventeen years. It closed in 2003 and her reflections on the piece that she should have purchased will resonate with all of us.
A Cautionary Tale
I often tell clients who are hesitant about buying a piece of artwork that they should think about it for a while. If it haunts them, they should seriously consider purchasing it or someone else may scoop it up. From personal experience, I know the heartache and longing that result over the ‘one that got away.’ In my early collecting days, I passed up a drawing by the folk artist Bill Traylor. Every time I see one of his pieces in a gallery show or in a museum, my sense of regret grows deeper knowing that Traylor’s work is now way out of my price range. But one of the biggest mistakes I made in my collecting career – the one that haunts me the most – happened in the late 1980s shortly after I opened The Sybaris Gallery. I reluctantly made the decision not to purchase Run Down On the Highway of Love, a fabulous beaded necklace by the venerable Joyce Scott. Start-up costs for the gallery were high and I didn’t have a lot of extra cash for art during that time.
I don’t remember exactly when we started to exhibit jewelry, but it was a gradual commitment. In the beginning, we specialized in the burgeoning craft movement, exhibiting work by emerging, mid-career and seminal artists such as Nick Cave, Jack Earl, Ferne Jacobs, Sam Maloof, John McQueen, Ed Rossbach, June Schwartz and J Fred Woell amongst many other highly talented individuals. Jewelry, however, was not part of our original focus. Wearable art seemed like a special category, but we soon realized the field was beginning to gain momentum. Artists were challenging the traditional notions of jewelry and conventional art hierarchies by executing bold new work. They were experimenting with alternative materials and examining complex issues relating to such topics as gender and identity, the confluence of art and fashion, beauty and aesthetics in relationship to the body, social issues and multiculturalism. More galleries, patrons and museums were taking notice.
Contemporary art jewelry was reaching a new frontier and my partner and I were excited about sharing this transformation with our clients and helping to provide art jewelers with a broader audience. We started out slowly bringing in jewelry by some of the most innovative artists working at the time. Joyce Scott was one of the first artists we featured. Joyce was making work like no other. Her large-scaled necklaces (actually they felt more like collars) were three-dimensional, consisting of multiple beaded figures constructed without the aid of an armature. The most amazing thing about Run Down On the Highway of Love was its sculptural properties. When placed around the neck, one of female figures stood out away from the chest as if it were floating in space – truly an amazing feat.
What I like about Joyce’s work is that it seems straightforward; colorful and whimsical figures combine with ordinary materials to form a wearable piece of art. The bright luminous colors, complex patterns and dizzying sudden shifts in perspective are gloriously seductive. But the pieces exudes more than just a strong visual appeal – they tell stories, powerful stories which transform the wearer into a virtual billboard displaying the artist’s personal views on cultural and sexual identity, race, current events and other controversial subjects, often with subtlety and dark humor which can be shocking to a viewer. I can’t say that I remember the exact narrative of Run Down On the Highway of Love, but if I owned it (sigh, sigh) it would be mine to study and learn from as it slowly revealed itself to me overtime. The hallmark of a great piece of art is that as soon as you think you’ve figured it out, you discover something new. It pushes you and prods you into another dimension and Run Down On the Highway of Love certainly did that for me.
Unfortunately, by the time I realized just how foolish I was for not purchasing this quintessential Scott piece, I discovered another person had acquired it. Buying the necklace would have been a wise investment. Yes, Joyce Scott is an important artist whose work is in important museum collections. Her work has appreciated in value and she has received many prestigious awards, but these are not the primary reasons I kick myself for letting it pass through my fingers. Having the opportunity to live with such a superlative object would have given me unparalleled pleasure. I might not ever have worn it – donning one of Joyce Scott’s necklaces is not like wearing camouflage. Three-dimensional pieces by this artist can be quite theatrical and one has to be prepared for the public attention they may garner. That being said, all I can do now is wear Run Down On the Highway of Love in my dreams, unless its current owner happens to read this commentary and would like to make a deal!
Linda Ross, former owner of The Sybaris Gallery, Royal Oak, Michigan, is currently an independent curator and private art dealer. Her most recent exhibition, Wearable Ceramics: Jewelry by International Artists, was held at the historic Pewabic Pottery in Detroit.