Folk art collector and dealer gives Bolton Hill gallery a go

June 18, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Richard Edson loves folk art, and loves talking folk art. "There is power and spirit in the art form," he says. "I think there's an attraction to the primitiveness of these pieces. Maybe it takes us back to our childhood a little bit, and so it's charming in that sense. And I think there's an element of mystery in it."

He's sitting at the small desk in his folk art gallery, simply called Folk Art Gallery, which he opened last month in Bolton Hill. But he doesn't sit long, because he's always jumping up to point out something on the walls or the shelves:

Paintings and sculptures from the American south; Navajo pottery from the Southwest; a Benin banner from Africa; paintings on leather; ceramic figurines and retablos from Ecuador; drawings by the Inuit (Eskimo) artist Ruth Tulurialik; Amazonian pottery and mummy dolls; a flag from Haiti.

The shop doesn't look crowded, but the more Mr. Edson talks the more one sees.

At 39, he has been a folk art enthusiast for many years, a collector for a decade and a private dealer from his house on Reservoir Hill since the late 1980s. He has also organized exhibitions, conducted seminars and put together film forums on folk art. Finally, after much thought, he decided to take the plunge and last month inaugurated a gallery open to the public.

"I played with the idea for a long time," he says. "The economy's coming back, so I think people are out there buying. And it was growing too big for my house. Plus I like the location. I think Bolton Hill is the Georgetown of Baltimore.

"I'm not fooling myself I will make much money, but I think the art is good. I love what I'm doing, making people happy and having a good time, and making money is not everything.

"And I thought it was time to go public. I didn't want someone ever to say, 'Oh, Richard Edson, he's just a little guy with a gallery in his house.' I have a lot of ambition to do well what I do.

"But it's scary. I'm not a real public type of person. I'm not a master at public relations or anything like that. But I'm sincere. Also I think collectors make good dealers because they believe in it."

"He definitely has a good eye," says George Ciscle, director of The Contemporary, Baltimore's museum without walls. Formerly Mr. Ciscle had a commercial gallery, where Mr. Edson curated the 1988 show "Folk Heroes: 20th Century American Folk Art."

"He really was responsible for selecting the particular pieces for that exhibition," says Mr. Ciscle. "He had done extensive research, visiting the artists and the galleries representing them in New York. There's no question that he chose the best representative work from them."

Fellow gallery owner Walter Gomez welcomes the Folk Art Gallery, something new for Baltimore. "It's important for the art world to be well rounded," he says. "It's a great thing for us in Baltimore."

An early introduction

Mr. Edson, who divides his time between folk art and private investing in stocks and bonds, thinks his interest in art had its roots in his childhood in Beaumont, Texas. "My uncle had been to the Belgian Congo, and we had African art. There were also Oriental antiques, with dragons with ivory eyes. Even to go to the kitchen at night was scary in a big house with all this stuff in it. Also we traveled to Mexico and the Caribbean a lot, and those brightly colored environments gave me a love of travel."

A peripatetic 10-year higher education career in the 1970s and 1980s earned him three degrees and brought him to Baltimore where he earned a master of liberal arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a certificate of fine arts from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Studying Russian literature led to an interest in early 20th century Russian avant garde art and that led to an interest in Russian folk art. Major 1980s exhibits in Washington of Haitian art and of African-American folk art solidified his interest in folk art, as did travels to Haiti, Brazil and Eastern Europe.

"I deal in contemporary folk art," he says, defining it broadly as post-1920 work. But that excludes much of what we think of as American folk art -- namely the vast field of 19th century works including quilts, weather vanes, painted chests and so on.

He also defines folk art broadly. "The important difference between folk art and regular art is that folk art is created by

untrained or non-academic artists."

Time to expand

The field, he says, has grown dramatically in the last decade or two, in terms of collectors and dealers. "It's become more commercial. There are not a handful but several hundred collectors. Instead of 12 [gallery] ads in Folk Art magazine, there are 30 to 40 ads [including one for his gallery in the latest issue]. The number of galleries has tripled. It doesn't have the personal feel it had."

But he thinks the expansion makes this a good time to open a gallery. "Since the '70s this field has grown immensely. It's booming. The recession corrected prices some . . . and now things are on the way back up."

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