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WSU ceramics exhibit offers look at couple’s private collection

Their home might be a gallery, or a dream-world menagerie.

Stairs and a couple of turns in the spare hallway of a former service building downtown lead to a tall door that opens to a burst of color and form, starting with a gas-masked girl and a bird-masked boy carrying trick-or-treat sacks. The third child in their trio, cat-masked, holds a dead bird.

Standing nearby, a fragile-looking figure with clay shards for hair, one naked arm bone made of clay – she’s all clay, except for a wooden leg – offers a piece of cake on an outstretched arm.

Past the welcome party, the hallway leading to the living spaces in Jim Kolva and Pat Sullivan’s loft-style home is lined with prints, paintings, cut paper, hanging sculpture. Inside, angels in nurse dresses, or nurses in angel poses, fly overhead. The ears of a 4-foot-tall rabbit head poke up sharply in the den.

Art is everywhere – on the floor, on the walls, ceramic figures crouching and pots resting on shelves. It’s a lot to take in.

“I was verklempt,” said Keith Wells, curator at the Museum of Art at Washington State University, who visited the collectors’ home recently. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Wells was there to choose about 70 pieces from the couple’s private collection for an exhibit on the Pullman campus. The exhibit opened this week and will continue through March.

Wells said he chose a variety of human figures, animal forms and pots – some traditional and some “cutting edge.” Most pieces are ceramics, but the exhibit includes paintings and mixed-media pieces, with an emphasis on artists with regional connections, including WSU graduates.

The exhibit offers a look at a vibrant collection of contemporary work, but also the fruit of the Spokane couple’s enduring passion for art and their evolution as collectors.

Sullivan is a retired social worker. Kolva is an urban planner, the sole associate at Jim Kolva Associates. Their building on South Adams Street also houses the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery.

Neither is an artist or has formally studied art. They started collecting together soon after meeting in 1979, Sullivan said, and they’ve cultivated their shared and individual tastes over the years. They collect when they travel around the U.S. – including annually to ceramics-educator conferences – and overseas. It’s important to them that they’ve met nearly all the artists whose work they own, including many who’ve worked at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, an artist-residency program in Helena.

The resulting collection puts traditional, relatively benign pieces (clay pots, oil landscapes) alongside a miniature army of animal and human forms – and figures that blend the two – and other pieces exploring sometimes troubling, sometimes dark, themes. Some pieces, Kolva said, are easier to live with than others.

Among his favorites: John Byrd’s 2001 “Monument for Laika,” a dog’s torso in porcelain, bared to ribs and muscle, matched with the encased head of a bird.

While some collectors require a pedigree – a certain status in the American art world – before they’ll buy an artist’s work, Kolva said he and Sullivan trust their own judgment.

“That’s one thing that we’ve learned, and it comes by looking at a lot of art, talking to a lot of people, developing your own ethic about what you like and what you respond to,” he said. “We’re not afraid to buy an artist who’s totally unknown.”

Their judgment has proven sound. Operating on a budget – they sold their car years ago but still make monthly art payments – they’d no longer be able to afford work by Beth Cavener Stichter or Tip Toland, for example, whose work they collected early in their careers. A piece by Cavener Stichter recently sold for $90,000, Kolva said.

It’s nice if a work’s value appreciates, Kolva said, but that’s not the point. There’s always new work, always a new artist, and he and Sullivan are always looking for pieces that call to them.

Kolva said he admired avid ceramics collector Sandy Besser, who died in 2011 in Santa Fe, N.M.

“He had no bounds about what he collected,” Kolva said. “He would go to student shows, and he was just as apt to buy student work as he would blue-chip artist.”

Besser was known for marking red dots near pieces he planned to buy at art shows, Kolva said.

“It was fun to watch him, because he had this reckless abandon, like a kid, smiling, going through. I get the same feeling – when you walk into a show and you see these pieces and they jump out at you, and you think, ‘Wow, those are really neat.’ ”