By Mike DeBord
As I sit on the couch looking at the wall in front of me, the collection of paintings in our family room creates a sensory response; the same response I get when viewing paintings in an art museum. Our human senses allow us to distinguish between 30,000 different color variations and yet the accomplished artist somehow knows how to mix just the right few colors from the pallet to create an image that can trigger this type of response. So, what is it that attracts us so strongly to some paintings? When I look at landscape paintings, it’s like looking through framed windows to scenes of places and times that are more than just interesting, they are often places where I would like to be. When I look at still-life paintings of interior objects, whether it be an over-the-top 17th century-style Dutch painting or a simple composition of a single piece of fruit, I can’t help but appreciate the detailed capture of the moment. And the portrait paintings and drawings that hang on our walls have become familiar acquaintances over time, like an extension of one’s family and friends. As I look at these paintings every day, they provide the same emotional reaction over and over again. And when I am on vacation, I miss them.
Over the past 40 years, my wife Kathie and I have collected original art. Prior to that, we bought and enjoyed prints of some of our favorite paintings. But after I took art lessons in 1981 and learned to paint with oils, we began to replace the prints on our walls with original art. Some of my better paintings were framed and placed on our walls and we began collecting paintings from my art instructor, Calvin Canepa, who was only 20 years old when I took those first lessons. Calvin became a friend of the family and I continued to paint with him on-and-off since those early art lessons. Eventually, we acquired over 70 of his best paintings.
Both Kathie and I were born and raised in Sacramento, California and married when we were 19. We honeymooned in Carmel, which later became our favorite get-a-way spot in California. Every year, we return to Carmel on our anniversary and over the years, we got to know some of the gallery owners and artists there. About 15 years ago, we bought a beautiful still-life from one of our favorite artists, who was also a gallery owner. That piece was our first purchase from an art gallery and it was the most expensive piece of art we had ever bought. We never regretted the purchase and enjoyed looking at it every day. A couple of years later, we acquired another piece from the same artist, so now we had a companion painting for our collection. Not long afterward though, the artist died. We have good memories of our visits with him, but we also had concerns about what would happen to his art and his legacy.
Many years later, we were in another Carmel gallery and we happened to see a couple of watercolors by this same artist and we quickly negotiated the purchase of both paintings. We hung these new pieces along with our prior purchases. But our home had now become full of art, or so we thought at the time. One day, a friend said that we were displaying our art in the “salon” style. I didn’t know what that meant but found that it was OK to hang art the way we did, stacking one over another on the walls. That style was more typically done in Europe (like in the Downton Abbey TV series). Now we didn’t feel like our home was so full of art as we did before, since it was merely our way to “enjoy” all our art rather than having to store some of it.
Over the next couple of years, we acquired a few more pieces of original art, sometimes going to art auctions and bidding on a piece or two that we had researched. Some pieces dated back to the mid-1800’s, and we expanded our collection from primarily oil paintings to include collections of watercolors, acrylics and pastels. When possible, we bought companion pieces by the same artist because the qualities and characteristics of the individual paintings seemed to be enhanced when grouped in this manner. Then one day, when we were in a Carmel gallery, our lives changed forever.
We had become friends with a Carmel gallery owner, Gerry Byrnes, and visited with him on a regular basis. Gerry had recently been designated as a beneficiary of a collection of paintings and artifacts from the estate of a local artist, Joseph Nordmann, who had died at 93. The collection that the gallery owner received included paintings that Joseph had collected over the last 60 years from his teachers, contemporaries and friends. The collection also included an incredible set of 39 large photo albums that Joseph had used to meticulously document his entire art career beginning in 1949. Joseph had no family when he died and had left much of his estate to his close friends. Two of his favorite paintings were donated to the Monterey Museum of Art and he made a generous donation to a trust at the community college where he had taught for 28 years. When Joseph died, he had many friends and a significant number of collectors of his impressionist-style art. He was a very popular and successful Monterey artist.
Kathie and I visited the gallery shortly after this collection had been delivered and found that they were selling some of this art. For some reason, this bothered me as I felt the collection that represented Joseph’s life should be maintained together out of respect for the artist. Kathie and I bought a few of the pieces and we expressed our concern about the collection being broken up. Gerry then allowed us to see everything in the collection and we spent many hours looking at the art, the 39 photo albums and the 18 sketchbooks. The Directors of two California art museums also came to see the impressive collection of Joseph’s work at the Carmel gallery. They were impressed and a possible museum exhibition (a retrospective) was discussed, but this would require research, organization and outreach to community members.
A couple of months later while we were visiting with Gerry, he made us an offer that we couldn’t refuse and we bought most all the works and artifacts that had been bequeathed to him. Gerry also sold us what many believe is Joseph’s very best painting, a large nocturnal scene of a wharf and boats. This painting had been featured on the cover of the Carmel Gallery Guide for Spring and Summer 2016.
This was more than exciting and we began to fully research Joseph’s life, and to interview Joseph’s friends and fellow artists. As we gathered information on Joseph from individuals who had been part of his life, we shared back with those same people what we had found during our research. There was a sense of comradery in the effort to preserve a place in history for this great artist. Gerry Byrnes had personally collected about 150 of Joseph’s “best” paintings over the last 30 years and a private museum in Texas had also acquired 160 of Joseph’s “best” paintings. Frances Ramsey, one of the museum owners had recently written and published two books on Joseph’s life and art. Joseph’s work was important and well respected.
As I conducted my research, I found that Joseph had studied under the famous Russian/American master artist, Nicolai Fechin, in the early 1950’s. Joseph had the designation of being “Fechin’s last student” as this master artist unexpectedly died in his sleep on October 5, 1955. Joseph and two other students, Albert Londraville and Hal Reed, later became professional artists who were heavily influenced by their teacher. This group of three former classmates became life-long friends and sometimes exchanged art with each other.
I found within the Nordmann collection several pieces by these two prior classmates. Then one day while I was conducting research on the internet, I saw a wonderful painting of a Native American girl painted by Albert Londraville. It had been in a Southern California auction and it had a Fechin-esque look. It had not sold at auction and I contacted the auction house to inquire if they still might have it. They said that the consignor had taken it back when it didn’t sell.
Ultimately, I found the name of consignor and phoned her. I explained the project I was working on to help preserve the legacy for a long-term acquaintance of Albert Londraville. I shared the information regarding the connection between Joseph Nordmann and Albert Londraville. Only then did I find that the person I was talking to was the successor trustee of the Londraville estate. For the last 1 ½ years, she had been working on the disposition of Albert’s estate and inventory of paintings. Coincidentally, these two prior classmates not only were born in the same year, 1922, but they had both died in 2015 only a couple of months apart. As we talked, we found that we shared a common concern. What should one do with the collection of an artist’s life work when there are no family heirs? She then asked if I was interested in acquiring the entire remaining inventory from the Londraville estate, basically expanding my initial project related to Joseph Nordmann to include Albert Londraville?
Life has some interesting decision points, but this one seemed to be pre-destined. I purchased the remaining inventory of the Londraville estate. My son and I flew down to Los Angeles and rented a U-Haul truck to bring the art to my home in Northern California. As I unpacked the large number of paintings and drawings, grouping them by size, composition, and condition, I realized that I had now moved from “collector” to “preservationist”. This is an adventure of a lifetime and I now better appreciate the role of the preservationist in constructing art history.