Byron and Susan Bell started collecting a half century ago, before they married. As she puts it, the couple wanted to take an adventurous pre-nuptial trip and found each had long wanted to see the magical, and massive, adobe architecture of Mali before modernity started to eat away at it. When it came time to bring back mementos beyond Byron’s watercolor renderings, or Susan’s photos and anthropological notes, they started noticing what crafts were on sale in the local markets.
“We found such beauty in the things that people were making for everyday use, and how much of themselves and their culture went into such simple work,” he says now, standing before a wall of clay vessels. “We realized this is real art!”
Byron pulls out a raw earthenware jar latticed with holes, similar to the classic abode look of Timbuktu and the Great Mosque of Djenne. Susan smiles, noting that yes, that was the beginning of their collection.
We’re in the Bells’ townhouse on West 15th Street in Manhattan, which Byron bought for $30,000 many, many moons ago…before his marriage with Susan. The place is chock-full of the “made-to-use” crafts the couple has been collecting ever since Mali, culled from 40 extensive trips to over 70 nations around the globe. All told, they note, they’ve accumulated over 8000 items, each one cataloged and annotated with more than 20,000 photos of and often interviews with each piece’s creator, in its place of creation. The two are currently digitalizing their masses of files. And looking for a lasting home for what they’ve amassed.
“Every time I think we can’t fit any more Byron finds a way of doing it,” Susan says as my eyes scan a wall of pottery, some of it ancient “seconds” kept in an Indian market for centuries, other pieces newly collected from Cambodia or Botswana, Guyana or on their recent trip to Australia and New Zealand over the holidays. There are walls given over to things made from old cans, a room full of handmade toys, nooks filled with brooms and mops; closets and drawers filled with fabrics, clothes, gowns; a wall of hats.
Upstate, the Bells have similar rooms of basketry, a colorful Bangladeshi rickshaw, a Bulgarian ox cart, huge puppets, and other larger-sized pieces.
At one point Byron takes me aside and pulls out a special piece found in India: a small kerosene lamp made with a base created from a can that’s been wrapped around a re-used light bulb, plus a handmade wick. He notes the philosophical complications posed by such invention, then pulls out a similar piece found in a Brazilian shop, only this one made as art instead of as a necessary “craft.” Suddenly the beauty of his entire collection comes into view, a fact that’s then augmented as Bell pulled out other working light bulb lamps collected from around the world.
He and Susan start talking about the many ways in which crafts, because of their uses, are truly universal, but also highly individualized.
Byron Bell, president of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild last year, is an architect noted for his ability to work within the challenges of New York City historical constraints, along with the breadth of his affiliations in cultural nonprofit circles. Susan Bell is a research associate in vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History of many years. The couple built their home in Woodstock in the 1990s, drawn by friends who were already spending time in the area.
Their upstate home, which stretches across its own driveway out over a stream, overlooking a fine, hemlock-surrounded waterfall, sits on the slopes of Overlook Mountain with surroundings that have been carefully curated from what’s naturally there…blueberries, birch, rhododendron, and a meadow covered in wildflowers that leads to an overlook, a pond, and a dramatic vista of the Hudson Valley.
“The substitution of new materials for traditional ones in making crafts, besides being fascinating, illustrates how the world and its peoples are adapting and creating — water jugs of plastic rather than clay, a small basket woven or wire rather than plant material, and those oil lamps made from electric bulbs,” Byron notes, referring back to the couple’s writing in a book they’ve made on their collection, in hopes of finding a home for it. “The objects we’ve collected are primarily handmade and were acquired during visits to villages, craftsmen, and markets in the developing world. While often reflecting the unselfconscious creativity of the craftsmen, they are things necessary to daily life: most were typically in use at the time they were obtained although some are objects ‘made or used by grandmother.’ Because they were collected at a time of great change in material culture, special attention was paid to changes in materials and to growing international influences. A majority of the objects in the collection are no longer being made for everyday use.”
The Bells say they are willing to donate their collection and its archives, which include hundreds of Byron’s watercolors as well as Susan’s expert cataloging and several hundred accompanying research books, along with whatever income the sale of their homes could bring, as an endowment. They’ve been in touch with several Ivy League and other colleges who have shown interest in it, and have strongly considered the possibilities of keeping it local, although they worry about access in a place like Woodstock.
At first, Byron notes, their idea was to have everything available for handling, although the growing rarity of much in the collection precludes that now. Key was that it be seen and treated as a study collection, especially now that so much it includes has unfortunately become one of a kind.
The importance, they add, remains in their wish to see their collection remain something living…and quirky in its display. The couple, she adds, is proud of the way they’ve come to mix up the various elements of what they have, the better for its individual pieces to speak to a variety of interpretations and truths. And both speak fondly of the old-style museums they recall from earlier days, or still find while on the road each year.
Although both Susan and Byron Bell still work, they spend more and more of their time updating and bettering the files around what they have. They realize they’ve created something truly rare and valuable, much more than its individual pieces’ individual worth.
What’s the highlight, I ask?
Byron refers me to a piece he wrote in one of the catalogues that have been circulating to those museums the couple, and collection, have been courting.
“The collection’s most ‘perfect’ pot was first seen by us in Bolivia as a woman was filling it with water by the side of a road,” his piece reads. “We stopped and with no intelligible words tried to find out about the pot, who made it, and could we trade ‘new for old’? Our driver came to our rescue. After some discussion, the women happily sold us this pot for a small sum. Why is this a perfect pot? We saw it in use; it shows signs of its use, having been rubbed to a smooth sheen; the pot had a kiln accident in its making, so it is slightly misshapen and unevenly fired; it has a repaid of some sort of resin plugging a hole.”
The Bells show off several repair items they’ve bought, in particular a manufactured British-style teapot from Afghanistan held together by an intricate structure of metal and bought in a market specializing in such repairs.
What’s their most beautiful piece?
Susan pulls out an oblong pot, from the same wall, that the couple found in an Egyptian oasis. They first saw it balanced on a woman’s head.
“The beauty of the pot against the blue sky and the grace of a woman remain in our memory,” Susan and Byron Bell later wrote.
Such is the beauty, and uniqueness, of their collection.