Artist Peter Thomashow has been a collector nearly all his life. He started taking apart his family’s television sets, radios and appliances at age 7, scouring them for his earliest obsession: magnets. Later, he moved on to fluorescent and phosphorescent minerals, and then to insects. Now Thomashow collects antique toys — such as miniature bowling pins in primary colors, wooden race cars and colored game pieces — and arranges them in the glass-fronted shelves of old cabinets and frames.
“I could fill about 30 of those,” he says of the 6-foot-tall cabinet in Rochester’s BigTown Gallery for a current exhibit called “The Collectors Show 1.” “My office and home are filled with that kind of stuff,” Thomashow continues. “I realize how much I love having it around me … There’s a feeling of safety and comfort.”
Thomashow, a physician in central Vermont and a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth College, is one of seven artists and collectors whose works, or collections, are part of the show this month.
A stroll through the gallery reveals collectors of different kinds. A portrait of Vermont artist Margaret L. Kannenstine by fellow painter Félix de la Concha — whose work she has acquired — showcases the collector as patron. In the hypnotizing work of Rosamond Purcell, who created a series of shifting shapes and landscapes by photographing their reflections in mercury jars, the artist is a collector of images. The witty, personalized postcards Tunbridge filmmaker John O’Brien has created and sent to friends over the years compose a portrait of the artist as a devoted correspondent. The recipients of his cards collect and cherish them as miniature works of art.
In the art world, there are endless ways to be a collector, says gallery owner Anni Mackay, and she hopes to draw attention to them through this show.
“You’re seeing things through the eyes of the collector,” she says. “What I wanted to bring forward in all this was the process and the individual.”
Mackay knows a thing or two about collectors. As a gallery owner, she’s in the business of presenting art she believes people will want to collect. Fascinated by the circumstances and passions that drive someone to build a collection, Mackay says she was inspired by O’Brien’s postcards, and the friends who hold on to them, to put on the exhibition.
Seen together, the postcards make “a storyboard,” Mackay suggests. “It takes you through a moment he’s had with those individuals. Also, it has to do with some sort of continuum of John’s visual vocabulary, which is very important. There’s something he’s working out perpetually.”
In the show, this perpetual quest manifests in David Powell’s encyclopedic collages and sculptures of found objects, as it does in the most literal collection at the gallery: the custom-made harmonica cases of Hoff Hoffman. For the past six years — since his search for an attractive way to carry his harmonica turned up few options — the part-time Burlington resident has commissioned some 220 cases from artists and craftspeople around the world.
“He walked in here one day wearing his metallic-y baseball cap and his rhinestone belt and his, like, sparkly shoes and his big cargo pants, and he said, ‘You want to see my collection?’” recalls Mackay. She said yes, of course. Now, dozens of Hoffman’s cases — some kitschy, some exquisite — are displayed in individual cubbyholes along one wall. Snakeskin, birch bark and what looks like welded bicycle chains are among the mediums.
“There’s a little spark of genius behind these,” Mackay says.
On the opposite wall are Marcy Hermansader’s photographs of her father, intricately woven with the checkered patterns of security envelopes that she began to collect after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The result is haunting: distorted faces, tightly held together with strips of computer-generated undulations.
“The usual response to Alzheimer’s is to see it only in terms of tragedy,” Hermansader writes in her artist’s statement. “What engaged me the most in making this work was a sense of the mystery that was unfolding.”
It’s mystery, too, that drives Thomashow to collect. “It’s about invisible forces,” he explains somewhat cryptically.
Thomashow’s toys — all from the 1920s and ’30s — carry a sense of the unknown, both in their connection to the endless wonder of play and their primary colors. “Color is another sort of mysterious thing,” he offers. “We have this tiny way of viewing the world, and we view it through color.”
But the toys also evoke a memory that has driven Thomashow’s collecting all along. He remembers as a child in the early ’60s visiting his grandfather’s candy store in Brooklyn with its rows of shelves, the topmost of which could only be reached by a rolling ladder. That’s where toys were stored and where, Thomashow recalls, he would peer into depths of unknown treasure, feeling the desire to gather them.
“A lot of what art is, for me, is preserving a moment in time or, rather, creating something which will evoke in me and hopefully in others a memory, a feeling,” he says. “For me, a lot of this is preserving the past, caretaking these objects so, hopefully, they will be appreciated and not thrown away.”