Making Kansas Home: Selections from the Marjorie Swann and Bill Tsutsui Collection
June 1, 2007 – August 26, 2007
When University of Kansas professors Bill Tsutsui and Marjorie Swann came to Lawrence in 1993, they sometimes felt like outsiders, or “sojourners,” as Tsutsui puts it. (Tsutsui grew up in Texas; Swann is from Ontario.) In 1999 they began collecting work by Kansas artists, and their passion for the state’s culture, and their scholarship on the topic, has since made them truly at home here. (Swann is a professor of literature and Tsutsui is a professor of history.) “Selections from the Marjorie Swann and Bill Tsutsui Collection,” on view this summer in the Helm Gallery, presents forty some paintings, prints, and ceramic works. The selection presents a history of this dynamic couple’s collecting and research.
Swann and Tsutsui began their Kansas collecting when they purchased a print by Prairie Print Maker Hershel Logan. They soon began buying prints and paintings by other artists active during the 1920s-1940s. As the couple educated themselves about Great Plains art, they cast an even wider net, acquiring work by artists from Oklahoma, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Tsutsui and Swann’s collecting has extended to traditional art by American Indians and Kansas crafts such as art pottery, Marlow woodcuts from Americus, and Works Progress Administration dolls. They are now adding art by established and lesser-known Kansas artists active after World War II.
The couple’s home is a virtual museum. Striking wall colors enhance favored prints and paintings. Ceramic pieces fill cabinets, shelves and the living room mantelpiece. The order at home belies the spontaneous way in which they typically conduct their hunting. In a joint email interview the couple describes “the joyful tracking down of fine pieces and desirable artists wherever they might look.” They recall many weekends standing at local auctions, perusing galleries, poking in flea markets, and combing eBay. Say the pair: “We love the fact that collecting has allowed us to get to know people whom we otherwise never would have met: artists and their families, fellow collectors, curators and gallery owners, conservators, other scholars doing research, and the diverse community of ‘pickers’ that frequent estate sales and auctions.”
Certain overarching themes guide Tsutsui and Swann in their buying. “We have always been interested in women artists, who historically have often been marginalized and overlooked,” they say. “We have a great many prints and paintings of landscapes, not simply because this was the predominant subject matter of regionalist artists, but also because of the origins of our collecting and our desire to experience a ‘sense of place’ in Kansas. We also will admit to having a weakness for the obscure, rare, and homely: there is something about the unsophisticated charm of a Fort Hays vase or the surprising talents of a little-known artist like Josie Eresch [born in Beloit, Kansas] that we always find thrilling.”
Swann and Tsutsui have written four articles on topics on the history of Great Plains art, including the role of women’s clubs in promoting Kansas art and Regionalist painter John Steuart Curry’s emergence as a Kansas cultural icon. Swann has long been interested in collecting as an academic subject. She wrote a book about collecting in 17th-century England, and she teaches a graduate seminar on the history and theory of collecting for KU’s museum studies program. Tsutsui and Swann will offer more about their historically significant backyard finds in a gallery tour of the “Making Kansas Home” exhibition August 26.
This exhibition is sponsored by the Kansas Arts Commission.