"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
December 23, 2013
They Shared a Grand Passion
by Lawrence Jeppson

I had no feel for folk art until I met Chuck and Jan Rosenak. They called me to their Bethesda, Maryland, home a long time ago to show me several items they were giving to a museum. Very quickly I became the student before two emerging masters.

The Rosenaks began their professional careers practicing law together in Milwaukee. Chuck, 28, was a product of the University of Wisconsin; Jan, 25, of Marquette. The Milwaukee Sentinel of 1 May 1956 headlined an article about their partnership: “He Lays Down the Law — So Does She.”

The article quoted Chuck: “My wife’s a tax expert, and she’s an absolute wizard at research.”

She said, “I leave most of the trial work to him.”

Although their law careers diverged, their close partnership in the pursuit of folk art became legendary.

The Rosenaks moved to Washington to work as federal lawyers, Chuck with the Small Business Administration, Jan for the Interstate Commerce Commission. They wanted to collect art by the fast-rising generation.

Pop art and the Washington Color School were the emerging fashions, but their prices already were rising above the resources of parents raising a small family.

On several occasions in “Moments” I have recounted incidents when an encounter with a single work of art has forever changed an artist or a collector. For me it was that June,1949, encounter in the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, with Theseus Slaying the Minotaur, a violent tapestry by Marc Saint-Saëns, that changed my life.

For the Rosenaks, it was a 1972 encounter in the Whitney Biennial, New York City, with a wood carving by a Kentucky folk artist, Edgar Tolson.

As quoted by Manya Winsted in Southwest Art, “They felt the work was not cutesy but gritty, honest, sometimes brutally frank, sometimes humorous, and it wouldn’t let the viewer turn away untouched.” They liked it, and they could afford it. [July, 2000]

Although interest in fine American crafts was on a steep rise, led by the redoubtable Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb and New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts, real folk art was still lost in the backwaters and backwoods. Although ignored by dealers and museums, untrained men and women were painting, carving, and assembling works of incredible originality and personal expression.

On weekends and vacations, the Rosenaks began seeking these “naive” artists, began purchasing their works, began collecting their stories.

Metropolitan Washington is awash with repetitive colonial and pseudo-colonial homes. I can count on one hand the number of modern-style home developments in suburban Montgomery County. There were three; we lived in one of them.

The Rosenaks commissioned architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen to remodel a nice colonial, changing the inside and the back (away from the street) into a modern showplace to display their rapidly growing collection.

It was to this location that I was called by Chuck and Jan. I went back each year to learn and to see the pieces they were donating. They gave me a small black and white painting by Theodore Gordon. Eventually I included it in nearly 100 works of art, mostly on paper, that I gave to the Museum of Art, University of Utah.

The Rosenaks were developing an intense interest in Santos, the religious folk art of Hispanic New Mexico. It was a long commute from Washington. They decided to move closer to their sources. They found a rugged piece of isolated property near Santa Fe and commissioned Jacobsen to design their home.

I lost personal contact with the Rosenaks but kept somewhat abreast of what they were doing. I never saw the New Mexico house and didn’t know what it looked like until Tom Rosenak, a son, emailed me some photos a few days ago.

I expected to see a modern version of the pueblo architecture which is as prevalent in the Southwest as the Colonial is to Washington. I was in for a surprise.

In keeping with the clients’ interests, the architect treated the facade of the one-level house as if it were a painting by a folk artist, a picture of the store fronts of a Western cowtown, as if right out of Gunsmoke.

Behind that facade and the big attached barn, however, was a modern house carefully conceived to provide showing space for the hundreds of objects the Rosenaks were collecting and shelving and archive space for their burgeoning libraries of books and records.

There were also walls pierced with windows to bring inside the extraordinary landscapes of those New Mexican hills.

The New Mexico home of Chuck and Jan Rosenak, showing its wild and scenic setting. The red collection barn on the left was needed because they had acquired more than 4000 specimens of folk art.

A closeup of the Rosenak house, created to appear as a naive painting of two wildwest establishments. Below, an interior view.

The Rosenaks were not driven to acquire and hide. They wanted to learn everything they could, wanted to discover unknown artists working in the most obscure circumstances, wanted to become friends with them. And above all, they wanted to share their discoveries.

They researched and wrote many books. The biggest was a 400 page folk encyclopedia published by Abbeville Press in 1990. In alphabetical order, it cataloged and illustrated every folk artist the Rosenaks had identified.

Another, published in 1996, was a regional guide to the artists. This enabled readers to identify and find, if they were looking, as Chuck and Jan had been, the artists themselves.

Then, in 1998, came publication of The Saint Makers, Contemporary Santeras y Santeros, a beautiful fulfillment of the dream that had led Chuck and Jan to New Mexico.

The couple collected more than 4000 objects. The high altitude in New Mexico and Jan’s health forced a move to sea-level Florida. After Jan died last year, Chuck moved to Chicago, where their son lived.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., acquired more than 200 pieces of folk art from Chuck and Jan Rosenak by a combination of purchase and gift. These will be part of a permanent public collection, preserving some of the best finds of the discriminating couple.

They did not want their folk art to be kept apart as the Rosenak Collection but preferred it to be integrated with other folk art the museum already owned or might gather in the future.

When I spoke with Chuck earlier this month, it was like the rebirth of an old friendship. He and Jan widened my horizon. They continue to do so through their books.

I asked Chuck about the other items in the collection. He said they are being sold, I assume methodically and slowly. He said to me, in effect, the time has come to allow other collectors to acquire and enjoy the folk art that had brought him and his wife so much passionate adventure and pleasure.

(In my next column I’ll write about and illustrate a few of these folk artists.)

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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