on collecting: michael dennis and kirsty jackson

I once had the pleasure of house sitting for a museum colleague and friend while he and his partner were off on an adventure. Between plant watering duties and soaking up the gloriousness of their balcony oasis, I had the wonderful fortune of exploring an interesting art collection which was hung in every nook and cranny of their downtown Ottawa apartment. This past summer, I was invited to their {new to me} home to see the collection in a bigger space and learn more of its evolution.

The art collection of Michael Dennis and Kirsty Jackson is truly unique. First, Michael and Kirsty are everyday people with everyday paycheques. They are not hedgefund managers or bank executives. They are not media moguls. Michael is a talented poet and has worked in the field of art installation and museum collections management. Kirsty works for the government as a senior manager in the civil service. Second, they began buying artwork because they loved it and not as an investment or to begin a collection but in the end, amassed a collection that is like a core sample of the most important and major artists of Ottawa / Ottawa Valley from the mid eighties to early two thousands. Third, the collection of Michael and Kirsty is not one kind of art but instead, various media as well as lots of very hard to display artwork that does not hang on perfectly and spatially on vast walls. Unique. Truly.

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{left: A painting by Eliza Griffiths and a black and white photograph by Moritz Gaede in the main landing on the second floor; right: The main kitchen wall features artworks by Stephen Height, Dawn Dale, David Beirk as well a series of small fruit canvases picked up at a roadside stand outside of Bancroft for six dollars each. FYI – Michael and Kirsty love to travel and often explore areas on their bicycles!}

Michael, Let us begin at the beginning. Knowing a bit about you and history, I am going to jump into an assumption that this collection of yours and Kirsty’s happened organically by way of trades and gifts with artist friends?

You are right, there was no decision early on to become a “collector”.  When I was in my early twenties I was sharing a very large studio apartment with a couple of painters and their lives rubbed off on me.  I spent time with them in their studio, became involved in Artspace, the parallel gallery space in Peterborough and when I could, I started to buy art and trading labour for art.  Peterborough at that particular time was hopping with art/music/theater/poetry: David Bierk, Dennis Tourbin, Dan Sharp… All of a sudden I had a lot of art. My first wife, had been, among other things, David Bierk’s studio assistant in Peterborough and she had some art as well.  When we moved in together in Ottawa, all of a sudden there was some substance and it filled up our little apartment.  That was in the early 80’s. A few years after I arrived in Ottawa, I started to work, on contract, at the Canada Council Art Bank.  That changed everything.  And maybe it was around that time that I started to think I was “collecting”.

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{A piece by Mark Marsters on a tennis racquet hangs in a central spot in the home. Marsters died very young from illness. Michael states “For many of us in Ottawa, Mark was the artist of his generation.  He was also a gentleman.  He created a huge body of very original art work that was filled with whimsy and narrative and humour and magic.  He was a full blown Canadian magic realist maple syrup master.”]

What does that series of terms mean to you? “Collecting” “Collectors” “Having a collection”?

For me, collecting is buying art to live with and not just to decorate the walls.  Having a “collection” comes with all sorts of assumptions and prejudgments. Mostly it is the whole snob, nose in the air thing, “OH, you have a COLLECTION”, but Kirsty and I are old enough now that we don’t worry about that much. We know the pleasure it brings us.

I think for Kirsty and I, the moment we considered ourselves “collectors” was when we saw the film about Herb and Dorothy Vogel. That was inspiring. Also, Kirsty had travelled a lot when we met.  Once, when she was in Norway, she’d met a senior artist and visited his home. It was covered, floor to ceiling, every room, every surface, with paintings.  None of them were his.  They were all by friends, his community and this is what he wanted to live with.  I guess our idea of “collecting” is combination of the two – Herb and Dorothy and the guy from Norway.

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{Small works found in corners of Michael’s office. Left: top two are by Dennis Tourbin, the bottom piece is Michael Hewko and the frame worked centre is unknown; Right: Juan Carlos}

What was your first acquisition? What was the first purchase?

My first purchase was four works on paper by Michael Hewko.  They are paper cut-outs.  I think they were about $75 each and that was in the late seventies or maybe 1980.  The first painting I bought was a triptych by Dennis Tourbin and that was about a year later.  It was $360.  I paid that in installments over a couple of years.
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{Slim’s Poem for Richard Nixon, Dennis Tourbin (triptych) with Rene Price (trucks) and Yvon Villarceau (ceramic)}
One aspect that makes your collection unique is your style of presentation. Your style of presentation is a bit ‘salon’ {art hung from top to bottom on a wall} as well as ‘oh here is a blank space which would fit this’? How do you decide what goes where? Do you attempt to theme areas?
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{The stairwell in Michael and Kirsty’s home is full of eye candy.}
Regarding our style, I will refer back to the guy in Norway. Interestingly, when we moved into our home thirteen years ago, we moved the art in first. I hung all the work we owned at the time, before we brought a stick of furniture into the house. The furniture went around the art and not the other way around.  Ideally, in a much larger house, we would have much more space around each work, better lighting.  Our home is a tiny one and no art gets the space it deserves or the light it needs.  But it is all loved.  Ideally, there is always more room for art.  I guess Kirsty and I are going to find out.
 
We do have “theme” areas.  The basement den is made up entirely of photographs and prints.  The living room and dining room feature almost exclusively art by Ottawa artists.
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{The amazing photography collection in the basement den which include a large Richard Nigro photograph in which Michael was the artist model.}
You have many risque pieces in your collection. Do you consider content when you are hanging the art in your home?
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{Artworks featured on the master bedroom wall include a nude of Michael created on a desk drawer during a life drawing session by Laura Margita.}
Yes, we do consider content. When friends are visiting with children, we don’t want to rub their faces in material that might confuse or upset them, so that work tends to be found a little further afield in the house.  But in terms of content, we wouldn’t ever purchase a work we didn’t intend to have on the wall.
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{These completely reversible ‘dildo’ fans are made by Rene Price}
Do you ever rotate work?
No, we don’t rotate work.  Work does sometimes move around when something new is added.  It depends on the size of the new work.  The last large work I installed required me to move about ten or twelve other works around the house.  We do have smaller works in some less common locations but we love the whimsy of it.  And I would argue that although our house is crowded, I wouldn’t call it cramped.
Regarding any new acquisitions, do you and Kirsty have any rules {i.e. content, style, price}? Do you both have to agree or consult with each other before a purchase?
We don’t buy with any real plan except to be open to the “next” thing.  Right now we are looking for a piece to celebrate our anniversary, but we haven’t said a painting or a ceramic or a drawing, whatever, just the next thing we see that needs to be in our house with the rest of our curios. I would say that we both feel confident enough to buy something when it strikes us.  That being said, we’d most likely check with the other simply because of dollars. Frankly, money is always a consideration. The great news is, that for the first time in over twenty years I don’t owe any artists any money.  A couple of weeks ago I was able to finally pay off every artist that was patiently waiting.  It was/is a great feeling. It also opened the door for new purchase.  And that is exciting. We like to buy works together.
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{Michael and Kirsty’s living room and archway to the dining room. These two rooms house the larger sculptural pieces. This couple does not shy away from acquiring works that many other people would consider hard to display: 3 dimensional items like the completely disfunctional mock-IKEA table and chairs, by Rene Price, in the corner of the living room. The ‘Bite Me’ is by Richard Daniels. It was purchased on a bicycle trip to Picton, Ontario.}
What advice would you give to anyone who is reading this and wanting to start their own collection?
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{Kyle Jackson}
Only buy the stuff you can’t live without.  Live with your art.  Celebrate it.  Don’t be afraid of spending money on art.  It is like money spent on a vacation.  If you love the work, you’ll never regret it or think about the money.
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{This portrait of Michael was painting by Dan Sharp in 1984 and won the City of Ottawa Painting Prize that year.}
Thank you to my collecting friends Michael and Kirsty for the delightful evening spent in your lovely home. It was an honour and pleasure. Readers, be sure to check out the poetry of Michael Dennis and his lovely poetry blog. The rate and depths of posts is so impressive.
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