"We set out to discover the art of America, and we found the art of the American people," say Chuck and Jan Rosenak, of Tesuque, N.M., who recently transferred by sale and gift key pieces from their collection of contemporary American folk art to the National Museum of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.
This acquisition of 220 pieces from the Rosenaks' collection makes the National Museum of American Art the foremost repository for contemporary folk and self-taught art in the United States.
With the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. Collection (acquired in 1986), the James Hampton Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly (which came to the museum in 1970) and other more recent acquisitions, the National Museum will become the central place for the study, preservation, exhibition and documentation of this art. The collection, owned by the American people, will have a variety and scope unequaled by any other public institution.
Although they both spent their working lives as attorneys, Chuck (now fully retired from the practice of law) and Jan Rosenak are known for their single-minded devotion to the study and documentation of contemporary folk art. Their three books -- Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists, 1990; The People Speak: Navajo Folk Art, 1994; and Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector's Guide, , 1996 -- have become essential to every collector's and researcher's reference library. Their painstaking assemblage of facts and photographs which describe over 400 artists is an invaluable contribution to scholarship in this expanding field.
"The law taught us to write and to meet a deadline," says Chuck Rosenak. "We feel it's very important to get the facts correct," adds his wife. "Chuck is the creative one; I don't mind the detail work. It's a good combination." Both contribute equally to the selection of objects and artists about which to write.
The Rosenak Collection would be impossible to duplicate today. For the past two decades, the Rosenaks have made it their mission to get to know as many artists as possible, to travel across the country seeking out unknown or little-known artists, and to interview and photograph these artists in an ongoing record of their lives and work. As artists die and their works are dispersed, the Rosenaks' investigations become even more important as historical and artistic documents.
Examples from the Rosenaks' collection are frequently picked for national exhibitions, as representative book illustrations and as classic examples of contemporary American folk art. The fact that their collection traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, to be the first American folk art collection shown at the Collection de l'Art Brut testifies to its quality and uniqueness.
The objects selected by the Rosenaks are never merely whimsical or cute. They are rarely sweet or sentimental. In fact, they are often brutal, frank, tough, difficult and what the French call dur, or hard.
One of the most significant aspects of the Rosenaks' collection is their interest in Native American art. After moving from Maryland to New Mexico 13 years ago, the Rosenaks began to explore the art of the Four Corners region. Because of their persistence and continuing interest, the Rosenaks quickly became experts, particularly in the non-traditional sculpture of the Navajos, something no one had concentrated on before. Johnson Antonio, Mamie Deschillie, Delbert Buck and the Willeto family, among others, are important Rosenak discoveries.
Their collection is especially strong in Native American pottery (Betty Manygoats, Helen Cordero, Louis Naranjo, Faye Tso) and textiles (Helen Greyeyes, Linda Nez, Fannie Pete, Florence Riggs), and a corresponding emphasis has been given in the National Museumâs choices. The recognition of Native American non-traditional work as significant is probably the Rosenaks' primary contribution to the field of American folk art.
Hispanic art of the Southwest is also an important side of the Rosenak Collection. Artists such as Nicholas Herrera, Enrique Rendon and Felipe and Leroy Archuleta are represented by outstanding works rarely seen in the East but which are a valuable part of our American heritage and will be important to the National Museum of American Art's holdings. Out of the 220 pieces, nearly 100 are either Native American or Hispanic in origin.
"We want to bring Navajo art to the attention of people who live on the East coast. Out West, all the trading posts are calling it folk art now and mixing it with traditional art. No one called it folk art before we came along," say the Rosenaks.
"We were pleased that the National Museum took so many Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanic pieces. "
Of course, African-American artists, both Southern rural and Northern urban, are well-represented in the collection. Again, the Rosenaks began collecting and studying these works before their importance was recognized by other collectors.
Established and recognized artists such as William Blayney, Sam Doyle, Lee Godie, Jon Serl, S.L. Jones, Justin McCarthy, Nellie Mae Rowe, Miles Carpenter, William Dawson, Herbert Singleton, Derek Webster and Georgia Blizzard are represented, along with certain signature pieces that have long been associated with the Rosenak Collection -- Leslie Payne's New York Lady, Gregorio Marzan's Statue of Liberty, Howard Finster's Bible Flying, Uncle Jack Dey's Acupuncture Pitchfork Style and Andrea Badami's The Boss and His Wife, for example. Lesser-known artists such as Russell Smoky Brown, Rex Clawson, John Gerdes, John Harvey, Leon Kennedy, Robert Roberg, Patsy Billups, Donald Paterson, Carl Piwinski, Welmon Sharlhorne and Jane ( In Vain ) Winkelman may be familiar to readers of the Rosenaksâ books but to few others.
"We've always tried to collect what no one else is collecting like the Papago horsehair baskets w