I have bought art since the late 1960s (The first paintings I recall buying were two watercolors that I purchased from a street vendor while visiting Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico as an exchange student in the summer of 1968.) but I did not think of myself as an Art Collector until I began to accumulate West Indian (mostly Haitian) paintings in the late 1990s. On the other hand, I have been a book collector (and part-time book dealer) since the early 1970s, so I guess I've had a collector's mindset for a good 50 years now.
In the early 1990s, my book reading and collecting interest shifted from Modern American Literature and Mystery Fiction to West Indian Literature and History. That came about as a result of research I did for a mystery novel set in the Caribbean that I wanted to write. (I'd just completed one set in Northern California.) It also resulted in my feeling that I was finally pursuing subjects that I found I really liked rather than what was popular amongst my peers. That reading interest—which continues unabated—led me to the study of Haitian History and Art, and eventually to collecting original pieces of West Indian Art, mostly paintings on canvas or board.
Today, there are three distinct categories of art that I own. First, I'm building what I would call my personal collection. More than half of the paintings that I have at this time fall into this category. Second—with an eye toward retiring from computer programming and being reincarnated as an art dealer—I am trying to accumulate quality Haitian pieces that don't fully meet my collection criteria, but that can be purchased at prices that will allow for profitable resale. Finally, we (my wife Rebecca and I) have a handful of works that feature members of our family.
My personal collection is primarily made up of works by Haitian artists, but it also includes paintings by artists from other West Indian islands. To date, most were purchased from galleries, auction houses or individuals in the continental United States. However—since Rebecca and I visited Grenada in 1997—I have also sought to purchase paintings by local artists while vacationing in the West Indies. Most of the non-Haitian paintings in my personal collection got there as a result of this practice. I do not consider those vacation purchases merely to be souvenirs; they are purposeful additions to my personal collection. In fact, a primary goal of these Caribbean vacations is to locate and purchase art for my collection.
On a high level, I remain attracted to West Indian Art for several reasons: The almost typical use of bright primary colors appeals to me very much, perhaps because I am partially colorblind. Beyond that, I am moved by the contrast between the happy colors of the paintings and the sometimes bleak or disconcerting realities of the lives and cultures that they portray. It is widely accepted that the historical isolation of Haiti and Haitians from the rest of the world—along with the near absence of access to any formalized study of world art history in Haiti—has allowed Haiti's artists to develop their art without distracting preconceptions of what art should be. Additionally, I believe that the popularity of Haitian Art in North America and Europe since the late 1940s has greatly influenced the work of non-Haitian West Indian artists; their work can often be seen as extending or amplifying Haitian themes. Fascinated by the richness of West Indian folklore and history, I am impressed by the fearless expression of original vision that is displayed by an impressive number of West Indian artists. (I must also admit that a major factor in my decision to start buying West Indian Art—rather that just continuing to study and admire it—was the fact that a wide variety of very nice original pieces could be found at modest prices.)
The purpose of my collecting is twofold: I want to better understand how West Indians—most the descendents of slaves who toiled for European masters—perceive people's places in the world. How do they live and how do they relate to others? How do they see and represent the social, religious and political powers that influence (if not control) their daily lives? I also want to show the variety of schools, styles and technical skills exhibited by these artists.
Here is what I specifically look for in works to be added to my collection:
Subjects of particular interest to me are daily life and activities, relationships and gender roles, special events, occasions or celebrations, politics, and religion and folklore. The setting is most likely West Indian.
The piece must portray an original, distinctly Haitian (or West Indian) view of one or more characters of any race. The characters portrayed could be normal people or historical, folkloric or religious figures. Non-human forms could represent the characters. (No purely natural landscapes or fantasy jungle scenes, but exceptional un-peopled scenes that show evidence of man-made changes might qualify.)
In addition to a distinctly West Indian view of the subject, the artist must show me something above and beyond what other West Indian artists dealing with that subject typically show. For example, a very nice market scene isn't sufficient; there must be some quality or factor that makes it truly special. Better yet, show me a finely executed piece that addresses an issue that I haven't seen treated by any other West Indian artist.
When the artist has produced a sufficient body of work, they must have established their own style and vision. One familiar with the artist should be able to identify the work's creator without the aid of a signature or label. That said, I prefer earlier pieces that demonstrate that style and vision to later ones.
I would like to add additional—but not redundant—works by artists already represented in the collection. My goal here is to show the breadth of an artist's vision and their artistic growth over time.
As of this writing, I'm especially interested in adding additional works by Wilson Bigaud, Elinus Cato (of Grenada), Nicolas Dreux, Roger Francois, Harry Jacques (aka Arijac), Carlo Jean-Jacques, Reynald Joseph, A.M. Maurice, Jonas Profil, Cameau Rameau, Maria Dolores Rodriguez (of Puerto Rico), and Frantz Zephirin. Currently unrepresented artists that I'd like to add to my collection include Francoise Eliassaint, Boscoe Holder (of Trinidad), Madsen Mompremier, Yves Michaud, Andre Normil, Salnave Philippe-Auguste, Gerard Valcin, and Derek Walcott (of St. Lucia).
While I own and have a mild interest in vodou flags and in metal pieces, I'm most likely to purchase an oil or acrylic painting on canvas or board.
My preferred size for paintings is from 20 x 24 inches to 24 x 36 inches, but exceptions are made.
Above all, I must want to live with the piece. To me, that means wanting to revisit and reconsider it almost every day.