A VISIT WITH TIM AND MARILYN MAST
One of the finest collections of ceramics in Michigan began with a velvet couch. Tim and Marilyn Mast sit by the fireside in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, surrounded by works of art, mostly ceramic, mostly from the United States. They offer me coffee and a place on their peach Milo Baughman designed Thayer Coggin sofa c. 1968, the Masts were introduced to modern interiors by a friend and interior designer, Susie Milock, whose taste in design encouraged the Masts’ interest in modern forms, and in so doing flung open the door to an almost fifty year passion for collecting works of art, craft, and design. But Ms. Milock was working with an already primed canvas, for the Masts each grew up in a manner supportive of art and creativity which might explain their commitment to arts and education and their high level of participation in Metro Detroit’s community cornerstone institutions. Their collection is itself a collective work of art developed organically and which now represents the couple’s personal vision as well as the preservation of a time of radical transition in North American ceramics from the 1960’s to present.
This exploration with the Masts is the beginning of a research into modern and contemporary ceramics collections in Michigan inspired by Tim and Marilyn and other collectors. Families that house significant ceramic holdings, namely Maxine and Stuart Frankel, Marsha and Jeffrey H. Miro, Rebecca and Alan Ross, Julie and Bobby Taubman, Joy and Allan Nachman, and Joyce and Myron M. LaBan, continue to consistently collect/conserve systems and transitions of thought in the field, not to mention the work each of these collectors do to support programs, artists, and institutions that maintain the biosphere of the culture locally, with tendrils of support reaching across the US/ abroad, and in the case of Marsha Miro, the accretion of significant scholarly contributions as an author and historian of art and architecture.
This mid-February morning, from my peach velvet perch, I sensed the upward pull of the ceiling vault and the slow spin of the rice paper figure twisting from a piece of filament.This form is one of few figures among mostly abstract forms. On matte white walls, red, pink, green and orange flares of color flicker amid predominant earth-tones. The home sits atop a steep hill, and a glass wall faces southeast incorporating a sheet of snow and wet bark. Raking light stitched together a Corbusier chaise, several ceramic sculptures, a low bench of art texts and a steaming cup of coffee in a paper-thin porcelain cylinder. The spare modern furnishings allow the variety of forms to activate the space in the way that one normally relies on wall coverings, rugs, family photos, and the lunch box family clutter that by design or default creates a sense of place. I was compelled to note the time – the light was so important to the experience of the textures. 11:25am in winter.
I first met the Masts at Cranbrook Academy of Art as an MFA student in 2004. Upon receiving the Clark Hill LLC scholarship in ceramics (sponsored by Tim Mast’s law firm), I was introduced to the couple and a friendship ensued. Marilyn Mast, was raised (Marilyn Parker) in Northern Michigan, in both Bellaire and Traverse City; her father founded a weekly newspaper in Bellaire and was a newspaper man in Traverse City. The creative embrace of language and the influence of her mother’s involvement with a Bellaire craft market, the Winter Workshop, permeated the Parker home and her uncle, Oren Parker, a noted set designer, familiarized her with creative studio processes. In grade school Tim Mast enjoyed painting and sculpting but would pursue a career in law. His studio exploration in painting and sculpture as a young adult cultivated in him an appreciation for joining material, artistic vision and the visceral qualities of sculpture, a skill set which remains his guide in viewing and selecting works of art. Born and raised in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, Tim’s father was a residential builder and his parents’ travels lived on through the works of art they acquired for the house. Built in 1939, their family home featured an original Pewabic Pottery tile fireplace, and of particular influence was a vase crafted by the matriarch of Pewabic Pottery, Mary Chase Perry Stratton. The barium blue and rich ochre over the highly textured surfaces imprinted Tim with a reverence for the ceramic medium, specifically vessels which lead him eventually to highly textured abstract sculptural forms. While finishing a business degree at the University of Michigan, Tim was studying in the basement coffee lounge and was transfixed by laughter in a distant salon. He rounded the corner to discover “this stunning, tall blond across the room,” he explained, grinning, who was enjoying the company of a mutual friend at a travel abroad function. That was 1965 and in 1966 Tim and Marilyn wed.
In addition to forty years at Clark Hill LLC law firm and twenty years as an English teacher in Detroit and librarian at Cranbrook Kingswood School, Tim and Marilyn raised a family (Ashley Mast, a school teacher and Scott Parker Mast, a musician), traveled and collected consistently, starting with their first acquisition: a wooden oval installed vertically on a blue-gray stone base that Tim admits their friends referred to as a commode seat. Not surprisingly this work of art is no longer among the Mast’s collection having likely been broken (deaccessioned) in one of their several moves. Though possibly a sore spot for the couple, the gentle ribbing of their peers points to the fact that the Masts were early adopters of modernism, and sculpture for that matter, which has always been logistically inconvenient to collect. What frustrates too many collectors about three-dimensional work – the weight, the mass, the installation, the very objectness of presence – is a delight to Tim and Marilyn Mast, who enjoy the slow process of selecting a space, re-arranging objects, drawing paper bag patterns and contemplating and designing their own pedestals which they commission from a short list of specialty fabricators.
The Mast collection has an undeniable sense of unity without objects looking like one another. It is not a hodge-podge but a collage across aesthetics in a contemporaneous genre of ceramic art and its next generation – or three. It is collage in that it offers the experience of an inhabitable tapestry as color somehow becomes air-born and forms reflect but don’t mirror one another. Walking into this space feels in this respect like a sacred space or experience – you can feel the composition of care and quiet mornings – looking. This is confirmed by the way Tim and Marilyn move through the space elaborating on stories of each work, biographies of artists, years of art, changes in the market. Tim touches the work and moves quickly, Marilyn is still and offers names, places and dates with tremendous recall.
The one impossibility in viewing the Mast collection is for the eye to light on an object without texture, no matter how subtle. It is like entering a fun-house of texture where you can try on different sensations – inflated, slack, taut, scraped, scratched, pierced, and dripped on forms that bring tension to the skin, and cause the need to bend close to touch. This haptic response, when sight and touch swap roles, when you can touch with the eye, or see with the skin, enables sight and skin to join and feel momentarily inseparable, as though the body itself turns to pure texture. Surface in these works is dense and sinks deep into the material below the surface, since the sensation-shapes involved are not about the outermost layer with color on top. Rather, surface in these works becomes a matrix or catacomb that invites the projected feeling that one can crawl into and hibernate, lay eggs, become primitive. Here one can begin to say what the power of the Mast collection is, the mark of its authenticity: it is not a pretty or decorative collection of objects; it is, a lot of it, messy, heavy and brutal work, against a clean expanse of floor, peach velvet couch and soft muted walls. The removal of information in the presentation of the works is clearly thought through: no stray boots, no T.V. remote. The conversation is between you and this vigorous work.
The inherent depth of the glazed surface on many of the works brings layers of speckle and light refraction that highlight fissures, impurities and tonal variation. Mineral spikes bubble from two 36 inch high ceramic forms by Graham Marks (constructed by Beth Blahut) in the living room; a soaked textile piece made of clumps of dried bread dough wrapped in textile with strings falling from the orbs sits in front of a mirrored corner, the work looks as though it has been dredged from a swamp; behind the couch is an inflated ceramic form by Betty Woodman that is the shape of a Saint Bernard’s rescue canteen; the tightness of the drum form is interrupted by layered drips that become blobs of glossy grass green and rust with an exposed grid of raw porcelain peeking through. A Kevin Beasley acrylic disc is stuffed with street soot and then drowned in plastic, a sort of vessel as jailer instead of cradle, yet in conversation with historical vessel/cylinder forms. Though we have become immune to the hysterical digital chaos that is on the morning news and commercials, moving between smooth sober surfaces to injurious spikes, between wood potter browns and hysterical pink puff at the Mast’s home makes texture and variety exhilarating again. It evokes incidents and snippets of experience, the physicality of making, and thought becomes tangible. Like making art, being taken by art is revealing. This collection says things that the Masts may or may not wish for us to understand, there is a viscera, a daring, a fertility to the forms with drips of hot color amid moss tones that, after listening to Tim speak, reveal a yearning for the making of art, for the experience of touching. The collecting urge seems simultaneously to invoke, satisfy, yet frustrate this compulsion. In other words, revealing it as desire in the strongest sense. For Marilyn, the collecting process presents an initial intuitive response followed by an analytical weighing of art acquisition against other possibilities. This evaluative process makes sense if you know Marilyn’s patient and discerning nature, but the couple can also be dangerously spontaneous. They see it, they like it, they acquire it. But this is after much general study in the field as is evident in their library and Marilyn who, now in retirement, can read seven books in a week and still make it to three or four art events. Though their library is deep, Tim shared with me the three seminal texts that solidified his passion for the world of ceramics: American Potters: The Work of Twenty Modern Masters, by Garth Clark; A Century of Ceramics in the United States 1878-1978, by Garth Clark and Margie Hughto; and Objects: USA: Works by Artist-Craftsmen in Ceramic, Enamel, Glass, Metal, Plastic, Mosaic, Wood, and Fiber, by Lee Nordness. Flipping through the plates of these books, one sees corresponding pieces and style markers on the wall, floor and side table. The collection is studied but fresh, having obvious spur of the moment game changing acquisitions. In addition to these key texts were later pivotal works they saw and felt compelled to acquire, and then allow time to catch up to the work through contemplation, looking, and further research.
The Cornerstone exhibitions at the DIA between 1968-71 and an exhibition called, Contemporary Art in Detroit Collections (1982), of approximately one hundred and fifty internationally esteemed works of art from Detroit domestic collections, made indelible marks on their understanding of art and collecting. Tim described the power of being able to see into the living room collections of families across the region and sense the network of appreciation, valuation, and curiosity – a movement dedicated to the celebration and collection of thought, beauty and culture.
So what is it that captures a person’s attention so completely that they must collect? The motivation to collect comes from many directions – love of art, infatuation with material, nostalgia, scholarship, prestige, investment, preservation – but the unifying quality that links collectors (of any kind) is, in the words of Marilyn Mast, that “it is not something one decides to do, it is something one can’t help.” In other words, collecting must be a form of compulsion and attraction – not unlike love((André Breton famously said that art – and collecting – should only be approached as an act of love.)). The Masts have built a living library of a section of our culture, like many other collectors of note. They have rescued these objects from ‘thought dispersion.’ The collective voices of each of these two hundred plus artists hang together to offer a colloquy or gathering of past and present, with hints of futures yet unknown. The collection captures and embodies the complex temporalities of movement and transition from one artistic generation to another, like a thought diagram whose paths and openings respond to one another in non-linear ways.
Since retirement in 2005 and 2006, Tim and Marilyn have been able to expand their passions for gardening, cooking, travel and books, passions which are evident throughout the home where book cases and pantries of handmade pottery are of equal aesthetic interest. Tim’s passion for gardening extends deep into the rolling landscape surrounding the property out of which large sculptural forms emerge as though long an organic part of the landscape. They are visitors to The Frederik Meijer Garden and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, and the Marshall Fredericks Museum at Saginaw Valley State University, and seek out sculpture parks when they travel such as Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, and art parks in Seattle. This brings me to one of the few concerns the Masts expressed about the last ten years trending artists away from large-scale outdoor art in lieu of installation or social practice which favors the art of interaction and exchange instead of objects. They are ready to develop their landscape gallery and find themselves with fewer choices. I thought this might lead to a concern about the devaluation of the object by collectors but Tim and Marilyn are not worried about a shortage of compelling objects in general, insisting the object market is thriving.
The Mast collection awakened me to domestic collecting as a creative act, collector as maker, collector as collage artist ((Many of the great collections / collectors, however varied, share this collage aspect: Breton, clearly, the de Menil collection in Houston, the Isabella Gardner collection in Boston; while the aesthete Adrian Stokes late in life said that it was absolutely essential that we develop an aesthetics of domesticity.)). To continue this notion of making, let us explore the significance of creative freedom experienced by the domestic collector as opposed to the institutional collector. In addition to the benefit of the domestic collection providing a nurturing, inspiring space to live out daily routines (bills, meals, celebrations and quarrels in front of the Peter Voulkos platter), the domestic collection is free of the committee with all its swaddling restrictive comforts, the collector’s free range mobility to operate both at random and by design is key to the construction of a unique work of collection collage. The see it, like it, buy it, notion that Marilyn described with delight is not to be underestimated. Sure, a budget is the dirty uncle of all collections, but the ability to build as you go with a committee of one/two is the fundamental (aesthetic) parting line inviting whim, chance, and the development of a personal taste that piles up consistent inconsistencies, changes that are beautifully incremental over a lifetime which begin to tell a provocative and specific story, producing a narrative unlike anything possible in a public collection. The collection collage becomes a biography but transcends complete self-portraiture or narcissism as it can only be made up of multiple voices of other people – artists and viewers whose touch remains in the patina of works unlike anything in a museum where physical interaction is forbidden, the effect of which is to reduce everything to the eye, the instrument of envy and longing, where touch is the instrument of relation, intimacy, and reciprocity. A whole universe of difference opens up here in understanding the public and private functions of collecting and it is in this sense that the collector as cultural collage artist is a lens through which I would like to continue looking and writing on the psychic, aesthetic, and material explorations of other collections.
The Mast collection has safeguarded a unique snapshot of a Michigan ceramic collaborative called the Clay 10, a generation of artists who came of age under the generation of Peter Voulkos, Betty Woodman, Rudy Autio, Paul Soldner, Ken Ferguson, Tony Hepburn, Robert Turner, Ruth Duckworth, Hans Coper, and Lucie Rie to name a few. The Clay 10 and others like them across the country helped that “first generation” complete the shift of traditional ceramics/pottery into the realm of art – sculpture and modernism. Together these two generations and have influenced the past 25 to 40 years of ceramics students through the continuum of modern to post modern and contemporary practice. The Clay 10 collaborative was generous in the way they identified emerging talent and including them in their exhibitions. Of particular interest to Tim and Marilyn Mast during that time was, and still is, the work of John Stephenson, former University of Michigan department of ceramics head, Susanne Stephenson, former Eastern Michigan University ceramics department head, and Tom Phardel, who leads the ceramic department at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. These three imminent Michigan ceramicists were leaders in the group and pivotal in a dense period of the Mast’s collecting helping them to hone their taste in expressive vessel and large sculptural forms. A further exploring of the Clay 10 is to follow in subsequent Detroit Research Volumes. Ceramic and mixed media works coming out of Cranbook Academy of Art, College for Creative Studies, University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University among others shaped and continue to lead the regional tradition of modernist/post-modern exploration of the ceramic object, and now clay and mixed media installation. The Mast collection, though dominated by clay, is not nostalgic for ceramics. Tim and Marilyn collect ceramic and mixed media works as seen in the work of Janet Neuwalder, and Sharon Que, two of their most favored mid-career artists, the early career artists such as the work of Shannon Goff and Tom Lauerman, Phaedra Robinson and Scott Hocking and emerging artists they are keeping their eye on as “ones to watch,” Kevin Beasley, Graem Whyte and Virginia Rose Torrence among others, each working in media spanning from ceramics to social practice.
All of these works have been discovered with a great degree of interchange with and regard for the Metro Detroit galleries and gallerists who have brought emerging to blue chip artists to the Mast’s attention. From their first purchase at the International Art Gallery in downtown Detroit, to the over fifty galleries listed in an addendum to this article, five specializing in ceramics up through the present. Tim and Marilyn speak with gratitude about the gallerists who guided their path as well as a deep sense of loss about how the city’s economic challenges have reduced the number and energy of the gallery network to a handful, few of which now focus on the exhibition of ceramics. This conversation with the Masts about an entire disappeared sector has explained so much of the shaking heads of elders I am close to in the arts. I’ve not had a clear sense of what they miss when they speak of what used to be – until now. Understanding this, their collections stared back at me representing not only artists but the galleries and associated networks, resources, and community that have dissolved. Viewing the Mast collection calls one to consider some of the visionaries, curators, owners and dealers who have played an important creative role in the Masts’ path over the years; it is to grasp instantly the sense of lost as well as newly unfolding visual art terrains in Metro Detroit: Sam Wagstaff at the Detroit Institute of Arts; Susanne Hilberry at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery; George N’Namdi for three decades as the George N’Namdi Gallery, and now the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art; Gertrude Kasle of the Gertrude Kasle Gallery; Mary Preston of The Feigenson-Preston Gallery; Alan and Dulcie Swidler at The Swidler Gallery at which Paul Kotula was director; Arlene Selik and Linda Ross of The Sybaris Gallery; Corrine Lemberg of Lemberg Gallery; Darlene Carroll of Wasserman Projects (formerly with Lemberg Gallery); the collective vision of Paul Kotula, Sandra Schemske, Meg LaRou and Joanne Park-Foley at Revolution Gallery; then Paul Kotula at Paul Kotula Projects; Dick Goody at the Meadowbrook Gallery, now the Oakland University Gallery; Mary Denison, Sharon Zimmerman and now Nancy Sizer at the Detroit Artist Market; and most recently Monica Bowman at the Butcher’s Daughter, and Simone DeSousa at Re:view Gallery among other strong emergent galleries. The Mast’s collection maps the intersection of these past guides/ relationships and stands as a living testament to one segmented era, an era that keeps evolving and incorporating new landscapes.
If 80% of success is showing up, as Woody Allen says, their collection reflects an exhausting, open, probing approach to venue. Tim and Marilyn Mast embrace the notion that the entire city is a potential space of discovery and the regular hierarchical breakdown between art venues is far less determinate – they go everywhere in hopes of seeing something fresh. (There is an old French term, denicheur, hunter, which is used to identify the art collector passionately and constantly in search of just the right work, and a work which, moreover, has not yet entered the mainstream of appreciation or taste, characterization which fits the Masts perfectly.) Their commitment to education and emerging artists is comprehensive, their collecting practice defined by exploratory participation. They tend to know the names of younger emerging talent yet unheard of by their collecting peers – they look at micro studios as well as visit to megaart fairs, Art Basel Miami, pop-ups, community centers and one day happenings. In addition to established galleries, they regularly attend Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, Motor City Brewing, Next Step Studios, and the Contemporary Art Institute Detroit (CAID) which is a parent organization for Detroit Contemporary Gallery, Lady Bug Gallery, and Whitdel Arts. Pieces playful and serious find their way into the collection like a toddler sneaking cookies into the grocery basket. They find themselves at capacity for space, but unable to stop the momentum. They are true collectors.
But what is more, the Masts are known to the local art community as serious contributors of time, attention, and support to Michigan artists and arts organizations. The study and acquisition of this collection of works lead Marilyn and Tim Mast to a deep engagement with artists, arts and culture and educational collecting institutions in Metro Detroit. Their participation in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) committee, Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art (FMCA), an auxiliary of the DIA, and travel in the FMCA and Friends of Prints Drawings and Photographs (FPDF) formerly known as the Graphic Arts Society, has had a significant impact on their knowledge and friendships with collectors in Detroit, Kansas City, and beyond.
The Masts have found a home at Cranbook Academy of Art, a board on which Tim has been a member and chaired the nominating committee over the course of twelve years. Tim’s childhood wonderment for Pewabic Pottery continued in his adult life as he devoted twenty years to their governing Board (including chair) and exhibition committee. One gets the sense, hearing stories of the collection, that it is a private accretion of a very social engagement.
Each piece is about stories and people, remembrances of relationship and inspiration, manifestations of their support and encouragement of more than one hundred and fifty ceramic artists. The Masts’ collection has been rightly influenced by their active participation in the intellectual, museum, and student life at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The Masts have a deep connection and understanding of the particular form of modernism from which the school was born and the innovative yet retreat-like experience Cranbrook offers. The school attracts a slightly more mature student base, many of whom have been practicing artists and many from divergent fields who bring a high level of professionalism to their studio research and tend to produce collectable works during their educational exploration. Knowing and tracking each artist has become a sort of intellectual/ personal past time. Marilyn and Tim have a zeal for the artists in their collection – there are files and spreadsheets that reflect this, evidences of the collector-tracker-hunter. The artists mark eras and historic events and transitions for the couple, “we acquired this when…”
Though Tim pursued law, and Marilyn teaching, volunteer administrating, and the Unitarian Church, their social engagements and relationships have taken place among artists, students, curators, arts administrators, and fellow collectors and appreciators. Their interest in forms, texture and meaning has encouraged and supported emerging and developed talent to explore the outer reaches of their medium.
Throughout my education, and conversations like this one with the Masts, my thoughts have been rearranged. I am now thinking of collectors as artists, their private collections as public (seen or unseen), and of the collector as cross-trainer – they usually do this ‘on the side.’ A point of distinction that needs to be made is that throughout their travel abroad and in the US, Tim and Marilyn have remained committed to building a significant portion of their collection with artwork created in Michigan, or by Michiganders, or artists from various places who have fallen into or fallen in love with Detroit. Like many other collectors a simple curiosity grew into a guiding principle of life – an aesthetic of domesticity – which has shaped their social life, travel and friendships for almost fifty years, and in turn they have shaped the community that people likely have been shaped by, knowingly and unknowingly. Their collection reflects a critical slice of Detroit’s history and culture, now safeguarded against dispersion. Entire histories housed along-side burgeoning visions, textures of the future. A true collection collage.
IMAGES COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND TIM AND MARILYN MAST.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARISSA JEZAK