Louisville’s citizens have an intense dedication to promoting what is unique about their culture and city, including its creative capital. It is no surprise, then, that Louisville has an active local and regional cadre of young contemporary artists. No two people champion these artists like real estate developer Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicolas. I chatted with them about their collection of more than 400 works, on view at their home and an attached gallery, to learn what motivates them.
What is most charming about this collecting pair is their lack of pretention. When asked how they began collecting, Nicolas casually laughed and replied, “I’m a shopaholic.” Shapin was actually the first to begin collecting. He recalls, “I think the first piece I bought was in ’72. I went to a party and I saw this one piece, Frilly Lillies … I just liked it and bought it for around $500. That was a lot of money back then. It turns out she has become the most famous artist in Kentucky—Mary Ann Currier. And that piece is worth a whole lot of money now.”
For Shapin, it was not Currier’s reputation, but his attraction to the work and the artist that really compelled him to make that first purchase. He says, “I became friends with Mary Ann. She has come over a lot, and has brought over a lot of young students to see [the collection].” Nicolas adds, “I think most people should collect what they like. That’s what we do. Some collectors are told what to collect, like this is someone who is going to make you a lot of money.” Shapin adds, “Or they collect the ‘blue chip’ artists everyone knows about.”
Obviously, Shapin and Nicolas are not motivated by the potential investment benefits of collecting. They are compelled, quite personally, by the artists and the stories they tell. They try to attend every gallery opening and art event to support the artists and the institutions that show them. When they talk about a piece, like Alli Wiles’s 192.6 mi of 2013, they often reference the exhibition and venue, and relay the story behind the work. Nicolas remembers the circumstances for the purchase of the work, “The LVAA [Louisville Visual Art Association] had a show at Public that was all light boxes, and each artist was given a light box to do something. Alli Wiles is a runner. She tagged a piece of paper to the bottom of her shoe and ran her route, I think for many days. Then she wrote the date, the time, and the distance on the paper and sewed them all together. It’s also like performance art.”
Many of the works in the collection have a biographical quality like Wiles’s. However, as Shapin points out, “A lot of the work is so personal, they make art out of tragedies.” Gesturing toward a series of photographs of crumpled tissues by Hallie DeCatherine Jones titled RE:Live, 2008, Nicolas and Shapin tag-team explaining the work. Nicolas says, “Larry really likes this piece. [Jones] and Aron Conaway run the Mammoth. But years ago they had a place called the Lava House, and it was a kind of an artist co-op in the Germantown area, in a warehouse. They had a fire, and their watchman was killed and everything burned down. A lot of people lost a lot.” Shapin continues, “Hallie wrote an explanation. She cried for two days because the caretaker died in the fire. She was wearing her coat about a year later when she found the tissues. She had cried on them for two days, so those meant a lot to her.”
Shapin and Nicolas revel in knowing the artists and their histories, as if they are secrets to unlocking the works, and they feel it is their duty to share them with visitors. Shapin points to a large drawing of a figure in a space suit, Scott Scarborough’s Released Due to System Failure (2009) and flips a switch that backlights the image. He explains, “It’s his autobiography. At 12 or 13, he was a spaceman for Halloween and that was his breathing tube. When you turn the light on, you can actually see his Batman comics that he grew up with, and his pajamas, and his mother’s sewing, and his father’s architecture. It’s a long explanation. The final piece in the autobiography is the writing that reads ‘Released due to system failure.’ He was on his way over to deliver this, and he stopped to pay a parking ticket. And they couldn’t find it, so they released him from the ticket.”
While the artists in the collection are all from the region, they are a diverse cast, acting out a wide range of stories from the tragic to the serendipitous. This diversity negates any narrow conceptions of the arts scene in the Louisville region. Yet, many of the works are also firmly rooted in place. In some cases, like the photography of Sarah Lyons, it is the representation of an actual location, perhaps unrecognizable to an outsider. In others, the location is the medium, like the work of Douglas Miller, who used Ohio River water combined with mascara in Plan for disambiguation. Or why don’t you lie down in the light (2013). To walk through the Shapin-Nicolas collection is to meet the artists of the region, learn their stories, and sense their connection to this unique place.
After traversing the hallways and rooms of their home, we concluded the tour in a new addition, a gallery that houses many of their recent acquisitions. Several of the emerging artists in this gallery have just begun to gain momentum, like Shohei Katayama and Thaniel Ion Lee, while others have just begun. Shapin and Nicolas are willing to take risks on new talent. Nicolas says, “I think that students are just really coming up with cool ideas. It’s like kids who are more creative when they are little, and as they get older feel like they have to fit into a slot. Younger artists are wanting to and willing to take risks.”
One great example is a tattooed bodysuit, Paradox, that they purchased from high school student Harcourt Allen. It was featured in the second annual KMAC Couture: Art Walks the Runway show at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft [where the author is employed]. The couple believes that supporting young artists encourages them to persevere and choose creative lives.
Shapin and Nicolas also recognize the value of galleries and institutions that provide a venue for experimental artists. They see plenty of potential in Louisville’s established galleries and new developments, particularly in the revitalized downtown district known as NULU. Nicolas observes, “Chuck Swanson has been there, he has stood the test of time. There used to be the New Center for Contemporary Art that was only open for a short time; it was run by Jay Jordan. One gallery I wish would have stayed around, if Louisville and Lexington were ready for it, was LOT, or Land of Tomorrow. I think we weren’t quite ready for LOT.” Shapin explains that the experimental nature of many LOT shows prevented them from succeeding. “It makes it harder for an artist to make money if people aren’t going to buy anything,” Nicolas laments. It becomes a vicious cycle where neither experimental artists nor venues that show them can survive.
Nicolas emphasizes how vitally important collectors are to the health and vitality of any arts community. Shapin and Nicolas care about the artists and their successes, support them through patronage, and live intimately with their art. They have become the bearers of a regional art legacy.
Eileen Yanoviak is the exhibitions and collections manager at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. She is also a doctoral student in art history at the University of Louisville and adjunct faculty at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.