JAlmost everyone loves art, but some certainly love it more than others. A few have an overwhelming passion for it, one that makes them want to take pieces home to always admire them. Sarasotans Leon Ellin, James Stewart, Caryl Sheffield and Murray Bring know this passion well. All of them have been collecting art for many decades, driven by a love of art and a desire to appreciate the beauty that has been created. “Buying something is sort of the ultimate statement that you really love the job,” says Ellin. “You can say you love it as much as you want, but if you buy it, that’s a commitment.”
Leon Ellin has been collecting art for almost 60 years now, first buying watercolors at art fairs in Chicago. Ellin and his wife Marge “started buying art before we got married,” he says. “It has become our thing.”
People collect what they can afford, he adds. He started with watercolors because he could not afford oil paintings. Artistic tastes also change over time, which is why this collection of watercolors has since spread to all types of art, especially glass works. Ellin loves the art of glass both for the presentation and the effort involved in creating each piece. “I saw [glass making] hundreds of times, I know how they do it, and it’s always like magic, ”he says. “When the glass comes out [of the heat source], it’s orange, and I can’t tell the difference between the final colors, but the artist can. It is quite amazing.
Ellin and his wife frequent museums and art galleries across the region, always on the lookout for something that catches his eye. “Our general approach is to go see everything. Even if we don’t like it, we can still learn something, ”he says. Ellin emphasizes interest in the story of each piece – from emotional inspiration to the physical act of making – and he prefers to buy directly from the artist. “You learn a lot more about the part,” he explains. “Sometimes a gallery will have an artist statement, but that’s only part of what they sell. The artist has invested part of himself in painting. It’s a different type of conversation that you engage in.
Ellin doesn’t have a particular favorite in his collection because he makes sure he likes everything he owns. “I decided a long time ago that if we didn’t really like something, to get rid of it. You run out of wall space after a while. He especially likes his works by Natasha Mazurka (who paints and embosses, sometimes using colored vinyl)) and a self-portrait by longtime Sarasota artist, the late Julio de Diego. Her Mazurka paintings are relatively new acquisitions, purchased from her in 2019 Control systems exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Ellin says he has always loved art and that many of his family have created art themselves. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any of their talent,” he jokes.
James Stewart and Caryl Sheffield
Spouses James Stewart and Caryl Sheffield (above) are a collector’s duo, although their main interests don’t always overlap. “We mostly collect artwork from African-American artists, although we also have a few pieces that are African sculptures, and some from the African diaspora in the Caribbean,” says Stewart. Sheffield adds that in this setting, Stewart focuses more on political imagery, while she prefers images of family life.
“I was an activist as an undergraduate in college,” says Stewart. “One of the posters on my wall was Black Panther Huey Newton. I’ve always had the nature of finding ways to improve people’s lives, to seek social realism, and to find strategies to try to solve this problem in art. Sheffield, however, prefers realism which feels more heartwarming. “My interest is really to have images that reflect me, my family, my culture, my heritage. It soothes my soul to see pictures of blacks posted on my wall. “
Both are always on the lookout for new works. “Finding works of art by African American artists is very difficult,” says Stewart. “We use a lot of different strategies to collect. When we travel, we bring back works of art. We go to galleries, we go to private salons, we have a few brokers that we work with.
The two have a few gems in their collection, but they don’t have the same favorites. Sheffield’s favorite work is Charles lily, a print by contemporary black visual artists Gilbert Young and Charles Bibbs that shows a beautiful young black woman holding a bouquet of lilies. “In my youth, before I turned gray, everyone used to say what she looked like,” Sheffield says. Stewart loves their landscape paintings by Richard Mayhew (whose works, influenced by jazz, abstract expressionism and African-American identity, were recently seen in the exhibition Transcendence on the Ringling College campus), saying, “They’re abstract, but they’re very calming. When you look at them, there is a lot of serenity in the beauty of nature.
The two like to share their passion and say they often showcase their collection in churches or with the help of other organizations, so the next generation can fall in love with the art as well. Sheffield sometimes visits schools, interacts with the children, and helps them discover the styles of art they love the most. “We do not believe [art] should just sit in the house, ”says Stewart. “We want other people to experience it.”
Murray Bring fell in love with art and collecting by accident. He was invited to lunch with an art dealer. When he entered his apartment building, he was impressed.
“I walked in and it was phenomenal,” he recalls. “She had beautiful works of art hanging from the ceiling, on the walls, all over the apartment. It was so impactful. It was there that he acquired his first works, including one by the 20th century painter Milton Avery (a seminal link between the figurative and abstract styles), who would become his favorite artist.
Bring’s main art interests are in American paintings and sculptures from the periods before and after WWII, with a particular fascination with the work of the 1960s and 1970s. He has collected extensively from promising artists of this era. period in Washington, DC, where he was living at the time. Many of the creators he admired would eventually gain national recognition, including abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan and color-field painter Sam Gilliam (whose works were recently exhibited at the Ringling). He was particularly close to another renowned color field painter, Gene Davis. “I would be invited to Sunday brunch at [Davis’s] house, ”Bring says. “After brunch he would take guests to his studio to show us what he was working on. »Bring frequently purchased paintings to these brunches; apart from meeting with artists, he also bought from many art dealers in New York.
Bring says there isn’t a specific style that intrigues him; he just likes what calls him. “I am drawn to a piece because I find it beautiful. Sometimes it’s the structure, the color, the fluidity of the room. When my eye keeps returning to it, there is something in the room that really speaks to me. His interests have allowed Bring to amass a diverse collection, but he has remained loyal to Milton Avery even after decades of collecting. Her favorite piece in her collection: Avery’s Hills on the Sea, an oil painting filled with vibrant shades of green.
Later this year, The Ringling is planning an exhibition featuring a number of pieces donated by Bring, from artists such as sculptors Anne Truitt and Mark di Suvero. Bring also helped found the New Sarasota Art Museum, as he recognized the lack of contemporary art in Sarasota museums. “I think it’s totally different from The Ringling, and it fills a void that hadn’t been filled,” he says.