On Collecting  with Rafael Soldi and Jerry O’Leary

As we approach PCNW’s Golden Hour Benefit Auction, we talked with some of our supporters about the art they’ve chosen to live with in their homes. Lisa Ahlberg, PCNW alumni and Benefit Committee member spoke with Rafael Soldi and Jerry O’Leary.  

Clockwise from top, Lisa Ahlberg, Rafael Soldi, Jerry O’Leary

Rafael Soldi is a Seattle artist and former PCNW staff member.  

Jerry O’Leary is retired and lives in Tacoma after living in Seattle for over 35 years. He says he has had the great fortune to live in many parts of the world which has spurred his interest and excitement in learning how other people see things and the ways they express their understanding of the world.  

Lisa: Jerry, you mentioned you both have a history of looking at art together, so I thought that would be a good place to start.  

Jerry: I have lived with art for several years. I actually started with an Edward Curtis gold type that my father’s parents bought from Edward Curtis himself. Over the years my taste has expanded but I never had a practiced eye. I was very impulsive. I met Rafael, through the Photo Center Northwest (PCNW) when he was working there. It was just a revelation to me that somebody with art training could communicate to me in a way that allowed me to experience art on a whole deeper level.  

Rafael: It’s been fun to share these experiences with Jerry. We share a lot of tastes, but we also gravitate toward things that are very different sometimes. The fun part is to foster curiosity about why we like certain things, and through those questions find out what those leanings may reveal about ourselves.  

Lisa: Where have you gone to look at art together?  

Jerry: Early on I was given private guided tours of the exhibits at the Photo Center. Later we visited the first Seattle Art Fair together. This experience was extraordinary because of that interaction with Rafael. The ability to be directed to look at things that I might have walked past and able to share my excitement. As he said, there were pieces I was excited about that were not on his radar particularly. But he could help me express why I liked it. It wasn’t important to him whether he liked it or not. It was important that I had the ability to understand why I liked it.  

Rafael: Once we bought the same piece, a photograph by CJ Heyliger titled Dead West, from the Gallery Luisotti booth at the Seattle Art Fair!  

Grouping on left, clockwise from top: Abelardo Morell, Anthony Cudahy, CJ Heyliger, Mary Ann Peters. Right, top to bottom: Victoria Haven, Gonzalo Hernandez. On chair: Marsha Burns. Photo courtesy of Rafael Soldi.

Jerry: Yeah we did. We both tend to rotate our art a fair amount in our houses. Seeing what he’s hung at this moment, how he’s grouped it, saying, “Oh, this is extraordinary. Tell me about  it.” 

Rafael: I love going to Jerry’s house and noticing something new and asking, “Tell me  about that!”  

Lisa: Do you both consider yourselves collectors?  

Jerry: I don’t, because the word collector to me implies a focus that I don’t think I have, other than being focused on what I like. It’s about surrounding myself with things that inspire me. To me, a collector is somebody who really wants to build something additive.  

Rafael: I think of myself as an artist who loves to live with other artists’ work. I’ve been lucky to build relationships with many fellow artists that have resulted in an intimate and personal collection. I just think of myself as a caretaker of these artworks that I have the privilege to live with.  

Jerry: Additionally, I live alone. But I don’t feel like I do because every time I walk by a piece of art that I got from somebody I have some kind of personal relationship with, it’s almost like I have a bunch of roommates.  

Lisa: I so love that.  

Rafael: Jerry and I—and you as well Lisa—live with a lot of portraits. I also feel a kinship with these subjects. Someone once asked me, how do you sleep at night with all these people looking at you? I thought it was so poetic, this idea of …  

Jerry: … being looked over.  

Rafael: Yes. 

In columns, top to bottom. Left: Sol Lewitt, Robert Yoder, Meghann Riepenhoff, Warren Dykeman. Right: Victoria Haven, Robert Mangold, Val Karuskevich. Photo courtesy of Rafael Soldi.

Lisa: Rafael you’re an artist, a curator and you are part of the photographic community.  How has that helped you develop your sense of what you choose to put on your walls?  

Rafael: A lot. I’ve been lucky to do a lot of trades, which has resulted in bringing artworks I love into my home but also placing my work in the homes of other artists. It’s a creative exchange. I also have a bit of an early access to seeing works in progress and early ideas, by nature of my relationship with artists who are friends and colleagues. I also have many things in my collection that are “uncharacteristic” of the artist, such as “rejects,” artist proofs, one-offs, early prototypes, test prints, etc.  

Lisa: Is there an emphasis to what you collect? Do you specifically collect photography?  

Jerry: I have focused on photography, not because I don’t love other things, but because I  have a relationship with the Tacoma Art Museum. They have what I think to be a nascent photography collection compared to the depth they enjoy in other mediums such as paintings and glass. They’re not able financially to collect contemporary works. And there’s a lot of really amazing stuff being produced that I think needs to be in the public. That speaks very much to the mission of what Tacoma Art Museum is doing. Their curator, Margaret Bullock is an amazing woman. Their director, David Setford, is an amazing man. They’ve been very generous in communicating with me when there’s particular things they want or that I can acquire for them or directions they’d like to see the collection go. So I can acquire things, live with them for a while and then donate them. I’m trying to have purpose behind the spend so I know it will  end up in a place that honors both the creator of the art and will speak to the broader community of people who will get to enjoy it.  

Rafael: Early on I collected a lot of photography. Because I love it, because it’s often smaller  and more affordable. In recent years I decided to shift my focus to buying larger works—my house was full of small prints. So I decided to save up to instead invest in larger-scale works.  I’m also trying to step away from traditional photography, which I have a lot of, and looking for paintings, drawings, and unique takes on photography. For example, this piece behind me is a  photographic woven jacquard tapestry by Peruvian artist Gonzalo Hernandez. Lastly, I noticed that I owned a lot of depictions of artists’ partners or lovers, so I’ve started collecting intentionally within that theme as well.  

Lovers grid, clockwise from top left: Erickson Diaz-Cortez, Ian Lewandowski, Kule Dunn, Marsha Burns, Anthony Cudahy, Chuck Howard. Photo courtesy of Rafael Soldi.

Jerry: I tend to like things that are pretty strongly graphic. The black and white dynamic  appeals to me. Strong shape appeals to me. People appeal to me a lot. I had several Carrie Mae Weems photographs that I donated to the museum. But the thing that drew them to me was the intimacy of African-American life that she portrayed across the spectrum of settings. Obviously, I don’t live that life and am privileged to see it through the eyes of somebody who does live it. I think in some ways, that’s sort of what Raf is saying about the images of lovers or partners, is that you’re getting a real insight into somebody else’s life experience.  

Rafael: I would say there’s a very clear aesthetic to the work that you like in that there is a muted, but rich, palette. There’s always elegance and warmth.  

Jerry: Yeah. For instance, of the Northwest artists, Guy Anderson’s work has always been the one I most admire. I used to live in London and I have a fairly large collection of English art.  They just reflect that time in my life and are a wonderful reminder.  

Image credit: Henry Moore, photo from the collection of Jerry O’Leary

I have several Henry Moores, I have Gilbert and George, things like that that are fairly graphic and fairly strong. As Raf said, they have a lot of warm tones in them. For whatever reason, the pieces I have are comfortable for me to live with. I do have one photograph by Huma Bhabha.  It’s amazing. It’s a big statement against war and it’s a constructed pair of boots with a metal calf, part of the legs and the rest of the body is gone in what obviously was a blown-out war scene where a bomb went off. It’s about the life of a person. It’s very out of character compared to most of the pieces. But for some reason, I needed to live with that.  

I also have some abstract works. Rafael introduced me to the work of Serrah Russell, a  local artist. I really like her work and have four pieces.  

Lisa: I recently saw the exhibit at Housewright Gallery Northwest Influencers, a lovely  exhibit of pre-and post war works by Northwest artists. I’m curious if Northwest photographers figure into your collections in any way?  

Image credit: Rafeal Soldi, photo from the collection of Jerry O’Leary.

Jerry: For me, yes, because it started with relationships. Besides Rafael’s work, I had several pieces by Mel Curtis. My initial art purchases in Seattle were via the Lisa Harris Gallery that represented Mel Curtis. She had a sculptor, John Sisko, whose work I love and I have several of his pieces. Tom Woods, who does both amazing prints and also oil paintings. I have a  couple of his pieces. I was really drawn to their art, but more to them as people. I like supporting contemporary, producing artists. I think that should be a big part of anybody who can afford to buy art; not just buying history. That to me is a really important aspect of how I spend my collecting dollars. Is it going to live on beyond me by being something a museum or somebody would want? But secondly, am I supporting an artist?  

Rafael: This is something I admire so much about Jerry. I know not everybody’s in a  position to do that, but there are so few true patrons these days. People who are really interested in supporting the development of artists. There is such a strong secondary market because every time something is sold, a collector gets richer. There are very few people who are just deeply committed to supporting artists. Jerry is the type of person who’ll ask an artist, “How can I support this big milestone for you? How can my collecting  support the trajectory of an artist in a meaningful way?” I just admire that about you so much and it’s really important to think about that every time you buy something from an artist. It makes a huge difference in their lives, you know? 

Lisa: Rafael, what are your ideas on how one can find art on a limited budget?  

Rafael: Books can be very collectible! Many artists also produce special editions of their books that will come with a print. You can look at non-profits and arts organizations, many of them have print programs or fundraisers. And don’t forget about students! Going to student exhibits, like PCNW’s thesis shows—making a sale can be so meaningful for a student. You can also purchase directly from artists’ studios, either by going to art walks and open studio events, or by reaching out to them via social media. Lastly, never be afraid to ask for a  payment plan, I’ve bought so many things on a payment plan!  

Lisa: Is there a favorite piece in your collections that you got through the Photographic Center  Northwest, either an auction or some other way?  

Rafael: There are definitely a few that got away. But I got a beautiful piece by Jesse Burke that I still love.  

In columns, top to bottom, L to R: Regina DeLuise, Clayton Cotterell, Zora J Murff; Jesse Burke, Zora J Murff; Shikeith. Photo courtesy of Rafael Soldi.

Jerry: I think my first Michael Kenna came through the PCNW auction. I enjoy Michael  Kenna’s landscapes.  

Lisa: I also have acquired two of his landscapes through past PCNW benefit auctions and I  see he has generously donated the image Snow Parfait Tree, 2004 for the upcoming auction. 

Jerry: I think my first one came from the auction, but then I got tied in to G. Gibson Gallery. When you talk about people like Gail Gibson and their commitment to photography and  PCNW, it really says so much. PCNW has drawn people in with such fidelity and commitment to inclusiveness and excellence. That’s a huge part of what the Photo Center is to me. Its success is that it’s not exclusive, it’s not a private club. 

Rafael: Gail has truly been such a champion of PCNW. The last photograph I bought was from G. Gibson Gallery, an image by Marion Post Wolcott that I just couldn’t get out of my mind.  

Marion Post Wolcott, Haircutting in front of general store, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, 1939, photo courtesy of Rafael Soldi

Jerry: The generosity of educating people that Rafael, Gail Gibson and Terry Novak (Executive  Director, PCNW), and all the other people I’ve met through the Photo Center is a huge gift to  us. In a world where art is not taught in schools and it’s really hard to not be intimidated walking into a gallery, to have a place where you can be exposed to art in a really accessible and consumable way is just a treat.  

Lisa: Are there any artists you are particularly excited about seeing in the Golden Hour Benefit Auction this year? 

Rafael: I’m particularly excited to see works by Martin Chambi, Odette England, Marion Post Wolcott, Barbara Bosworth, Craig Mammano, Kris Graves, Meghann Riepenhoff, and many recent PCNW grads! 

This interview has been abridged for brevity. 

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