Idaho Arts Quarterly » Noteworthy

The Walls of Perception

Boise lawyers learn the art of collecting

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The serene and meditative terracotta vessel by Idaho native Kerry Moosman in the reception area of the downtown Boise law offices of Spink Butler soothes the senses. Something about its burnished surface and reflective lines calms the mind. Hinting at ancient traditions of pre-Columbian and Hopi pottery, its mystical presence plays with time. Visitors find their eye drawn to a nearby wall where a pastel of muted browns and grays by Japanese artist Yutaka Yoshinaga seems to mysteriously float. Together, the two pieces harmoniously call for patience and calm, the perfect message for a waiting area.

"It's not uncommon to find people wandering around as if they were in a gallery," says attorney JoAnn Butler. "They seem surprised and delighted, and it puts them in a good mood before we sit down to business."

When Butler and her law partner and husband, Michael Spink, initially saw their current 7,500 square foot office space in 2002, there were no interior walls or finished floors. They knew they needed help dealing with such an architectural blank canvas and hired Christine Duft-McConville, senior interior designer at CTA Architects and Engineers.

"We started with a raw shell space," Duft explains. "It allowed us to create something that is truly representative of Spink Butler's personality without having any preexisting limitations."

The result is a Zen-like suite of offices interconnected by generous corridors that serves as an elegant backdrop for a collection of almost two dozen meticulously selected paintings, fine prints and sculptures. But both Spink and Butler acknowledge that they were not consciously aware of creating a showcase for art while designing their offices.

"The only instruction we gave Christine was to make it not look like a lawyer's office," Spink recounts while giving a tour. Major works by Christel Dillbohner, Jamie Chase, Squeak Carnwath and Judy Pfaff cover the walls. "I can't imagine going back to an office that doesn't incorporate good art. We spend so much time here. I wanted both our employees and clients to feel comfortable."

The collection was assembled with the help of Stephanie Wilde, owner of Stewart Gallery. It was Wilde's intent to not only present work that offered a high degree of individual integrity and value, but also to be conscious of the blending of the separate pieces into an integrated whole.

"We had seven years to develop this collection," Wilde says as she sits beside a pair of wire horse assemblages by Laure Heinz in the large conference room. "Mike and JoAnn were very open to my suggestions. They were not in a rush to merely fill the walls. The collection has evolved over a period of time, and it shows."

"I don't regard myself as a collector," says Spink while sitting before two dramatically oversized woodblocks by Jeanine Coupe Ryding that seem to belie his statement. "I love art, and I simply wanted to incorporate it in my working environment. I feel a collector is someone who studies art and becomes highly knowledgable. Most of the thought that went into this collection came from Stephanie."

Both Spink and Butler lack a formal art background and wanted to work with someone who could make them feel comfortable in unfamiliar territory. Art is often elusive and lawless, and collecting it can be fraught with dangers and pitfalls.

"Mike and I both hate lawspeak," Butler says. "We feel it separates us from our clients. Stephanie never created any barriers by overwhelming us with artspeak. She knew we needed to have an emotional response to the work."

"You don't have to have a lofty knowledge of art to appreciate it," says Wilde. "It's important for us at the gallery to know the resumes and complete history of an artist so that we can offer sound work. People get this idea that they have to have an intellectual connection to the art. I think you can go to an Italian opera, not speak Italian, and still enjoy yourself."

Always true to her passions and willing to take risks, Wilde launched the collection with a challenging piece, a starkly minimal oil by Washington artist Maya Chachava, entitled My Father and I. Not much more than a single field of vivid orange, the painting offered only the slightest clues to a novice collector and immediately expanded the parameters of what might be considered in the future. Standing before the painting now, Spink seems to revel in its inexplicable radiance.

"This seems to get the strongest reaction," he says. "For some people, it's a rectangular orange blob. To others, it is the most complex piece in the collection. Such a diverse range of opinions indicates to me that it is serving the purpose for which it was purchased."

"I think we accepted about 70 percent of what was presented to us," Spink says. "Some pieces did test my financial stress levels, while others were shockingly affordable. The cost of the art has nothing to do with my appreciation of it."

Dealing with such a diverse range of artists and mediums called for careful planning. "All the work has a voice," Wilde says. "The pieces have to speak to each other. You need to think about how you'll place a bold abstract oil by Bay Area artist Henry Jackson in relationship to a sensitive and meticulous work on paper by Brad Brown from Brooklyn. Some works aren't on speaking terms. Others have more friendly conversations."

Walking through the offices, each piece seems perfectly placed. The works have taken root and offer a sense of presence that only the most enlightened curator can achieve.

"Stephanie was instrumental in positioning all the art," says Spink. "Currently, I feel the collection is essentially complete. We'd like to continue supporting the artists during these hard times, but at the moment, supporting our employees is our primary concern."

Spink and Butler stand before a large oil and alkyd on board by Wyoming artist Matt Flint. The painting, entitled Dust, is their most recent acquisition. It employs abstracted plants and animals to suggest isolation and transformation. It offers a dream-like landscape of the artist's imagination.

"I like the texture and the colors," Spink says. "The techniques Flint uses, like scratching the surface, make it moody. When I look at Matt's work, I wonder what he's thinking about."

"I marvel at how an artist can conceive of a concept and have it travel down their arm to become a painting or a sculpture," says Butler. "One of the greatest things about working with Stephanie was her ability to help us understand what it means to be an artist. She has a passion not only for the work, but also for the lives of the artists themselves."

Art collections can often live beyond the life spans of those who have established them. Some are passed down to future generations or donated to museums. Others are broken up and the collection is lost. When Spink is asked what might become of the Spink Butler collection after he's gone, he offers a smile and gives an enigmatic reply.

"I don't know," he says. "What will happen to me after I'm gone?"

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a grant BW was awarded to increase diversity in media. Our proposal to the grant committee was a project we've since named The Grip, a blog by two new Americans who have been relocated to Boise through refugee agencies. The Grip went live only two short weeks ago and has been garnering some interesting attention. One recent post in particular, "A People Without a Nation" from Congolese blogger FBM Fidel Nshombo, generated an interesting international debate. Nshombo wrote about the Banyamulenge, a people from the mountains of Congo who the Congolese considered Rwandan immigrants, but who Rwandans consider Congolese, though many helped the Rwandans overthrow Congolese leader Mobutu. Nshombo's post on The Grip was ultimately about a group of refugees living in Boise, who have been nicknamed the Cogorwa--Banyamulenge who, even in Boise, are neither Congolese nor Rwandan--but the background information he provided spurred debate among readers all over the globe.

I sincerely hope these initial blog posts, as well as the ensuing global discussion, are indications of what we can expect from The Grip in the future, particularly because it's the only public dialogue of its kind in Boise. Between 1998 and 2008, 5,343 refugees were relocated to Boise. Almost 1,000 refugees came to Boise between October 2007 and September 2008. Most recently, the majority of Boise's refugees are from Somalia, Burma, Iraq and Bhutan, countries in which life is vastly different from Idaho. Today Boiseans see handfuls of African Muslim women and their children waiting for the bus on one of the city's busiest streets. We hear Nepalese spoken as we walk through downtown. However, I don't believe the mainstream media has figured out how to incorporate these newcomers into not only coverage but also reporting. I believe it's up to the alternative media to blaze the trail forward, and The Grip is our first attempt.

Nshombo's co-writer is Luma Jasim, a graphic designer from Iraq. In a recent post, Jasim talks about her 24-hour journey to Idaho, a place she'd never heard of until the refugee agency assigned her family here. With each of her blog entries, Jasim also posts her vivid art work, including a whimsical piece depicting six people leaping from a fiery landscape across a swath of blue into the safety of a nebulous green. It's called "Immigration."

Log onto boiseweekly.com. You'll find The Grip under "Blogs" in the main tool bar.

--Rachael Daigle