You never know what you might find when you hop in your Chrysler LeBaron and keep driving. And driving. And driving.
In Ralph T. Coe’s case, he found more than 2,000 pieces of art from Native American and other indigenous traditions, which he lived with wall-to-wall in his house off Agua Fria Street.
Well, outside the walls, too. He had a totem pole rising from his backyard, according to his niece, Rachel Wixom, who is president of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.
Coe, known to most people as Ted, died in 2010 and his collection, in the hands of his foundation, is stored and partly displayed at the foundation’s offices at 1590-B Pacheco St. The works will have their first major exhibition, opening Saturday and running through April 17, at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
The exhibition will demonstrate his eclectic tastes and draw particularly on art objects from tribes outside the Southwest, which don’t have as much exposure in New Mexico, said curator Bruce Bernstein.
Beyond that, the show will attempt to portray how those objects were part of Coe’s life, and the lives of the people who made and used them. His journeys around the country and the world were not just about finding things, but about the people he met along the way and the stories they told him about the art objects – the baskets, the bowls, the clothing, the tools and more.
In other words, it’s not just about a beautiful bowl, but about how that bowl was used to make grandma’s summer pudding recipe, Bernstein said.
A Yale-trained art historian, Coe curated some ground-breaking exhibitions of Native American art and eventually was promoted to director of the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City in 1977. By 1982, though, he found himself wondering if he wanted to be an administrator or a curator/collector, Bernstein said.
He hopped in his LeBaron and never looked back.
“He told me he would drive five hours out of the way for a good piece of pie,” Wixom said – and that led to the title of the exhibition: connoisseurship to reflect the fine aspect of art appreciation, and good pie to embody Coe’s down-to-earth nature.
“He was a common, everyday guy, but an erudite scholar,” Bernstein said. “He was able to sit with people for hours.”
Coe played a major role in shifting the perception of Native American objects from being seen as anthropological artifacts to being appreciated as works of art, he said.
The Wheelwright exhibition will be organized around three major exhibitions Coe curated that reflected different stages of viewing Native American objects. The first, inspired by “Sacred Circles,” a London exhibition in 1976-77, explores the idea of transitioning from artifact to art, to accepting the fact that indigenous art is as valued as that from any other culture, Bernstein said.
“Lost and Found Traditions,” which opened at the American Museum of Natural History, included works only from living artists, demonstrating that Native Americans are still living among us and producing art. This show helped familiarize people with Native objects and learn more about how they were used, he said.
The third show, “The Responsive Eye,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was about seeing the art and beauty in Native objects, according to Bernstein.
Coe’s voice is heard throughout the show with his comments in the catalogue and on displays.
Concerning a “White Man’s Indian Watch,” 1984-85, by Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty (Assiniboine-Sioux), Coe wrote, “Jim and Joyce both felt that I needed a more stylish way of presenting myself for Indian affairs: ‘You really ought to look right.’ I was told that I spent much too much time looking at my watch and since clocks are ‘very whitey,’ the solution to that was to give me a watch, beaded in Indian style, but which had only a blank dial.”
Of a comb made from a moose antler by Stanley Hill (Mohawk), Coe wrote, “You haven’t seen anything until you pull up in front of Stanley Hill’s suburban type house in Grand Island, New York and look through the open garage doors, as I did in 1979 when I first met him. There, the artist’s tools are screeching, while he hovers over his worktable with eye goggles on while an impenetrable pile of antlers stacked every which way seems almost to take the place of the garage walls. This comb was produced in this environment harking back to Iroquois combs of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.”
Still in its early stages, the Coe Foundation has had a basket exhibition for the public in its headquarters and also has hosted students from the Academy for Technology and the Classics, who curated their own exhibition with items they chose for display.
The Coe Foundation doesn’t have regular hours open to the public, but anyone is invited to call and make an appointment, or even stop by if they’re in the neighborhood and see if anyone answers the door, Wixom said. Programs will be scheduled for Aug. 18 and 20 when people can visit, she added.
Don’t be shy, Wixom said. “If you’re interested, contact us … . We want everyone to feel welcome.” The office’s phone number is 983-6372.