Local Collectors Share Private Holdings

Members of the Auburn community are sharing two private fine art collections with visitors to Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University. The museum will present “Between the Black and Caspian Seas: Antique Rugs from the Caucasus––Selections from the Collection of Larry Gerber” and “The Greatest Poem”––American Art in the Robert B. Ekelund, Jr. and Mark Thornton Collection” from May 23, 2015 to Sept. 6, 2015.

The antique carpets date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a period art historians describe as an exceptional time of productivity, referencing many traditional motifs and cross ancestral references and designs. Influences and customs of the Byzantium, Islam, Central Asian Turks, as well as the Ottoman Empire and Europeanized Imperial Russia, are all a part of traditional Caucasus weaving, according to museum director and curator of this exhibition, Marilyn Laufer. “For the most part, self-employed women-weavers working out of their homes and villages sustained this craft,” Laufer said. “The rugs soon found their way into mosques and became available for purchase or barter by way of the caravan trade.”

The quote used in the exhibition title of American art running concurrently is from the preface to Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman proclaimed America itself “the greatest poem” in response to the activity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the young nation began to find its own voice. “American artists at the turn of the century turned from emulating European modes to exploring new ways of artistic expression,” said Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions at the museum. “The Ekelund/Thornton collection reflects in many ways Whitman’s vision of America’s potential,” he said, siting an example by Edward Hopper, which draws attention to the common man, and another from Arthur Dove, showing the transition from realism to abstraction.

Collectors Larry Geber and Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., both Auburn professor emeriti in history and economics, respectively, attribute their present day interest in collecting to their early years. For Gerber, he became a collector first with baseball cards; seashells and prints of English castles captivated Ekelund’s interest as a youth.

Gerber expanded his boyhood hobby more recently to prints, sculptures, and engravings; but he said nothing compares to his passion for rugs. He purchased his first rug for home decoration, but then eventually through antique markets in Atlanta and the advent of Ebay, he discovered Caucasian rugs and developed his collecting focus.

“As is commonly the case with collectors, I soon found that I wanted to learn more about what I was collecting,” he said. Through magazines, books, and catalogues, he said he found pictures of the designs he would then seek out. “In my travels abroad and throughout the US, I have remained ever vigilant in my quest for antique Caucasian rugs and have bought rugs in locales as far away as Germany, Hungary, and Turkey.”

For Ekelund, collecting evolved into what he describes today as an integral part of his life. “My interest in art continued as an undergraduate when I took as many classes in art and ancient and medieval history as were offered. I majored, however, in economics,” Ekelund said. This career path brought him to Texas A&M University, where he developed a focus on Mexican art during visits to Mexico. While at Auburn University, he continued collecting in this area and became involved with Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art as a faculty representative in the museum’s inception and later as interim co-director. Through contacts with historians and other collectors during this time, he and his spouse Mark Thornton began a focus of pre-1950 art by Americans and artists who settled in America, amassing a collection of oils, watercolors, drawings, and prints.

“In the end, we collect art or anything that holds and expands our interests,” Ekelund said. “Introductory and continuous reading and research on particular items or areas of collecting are essential. I see a spectacular and diverse history of our country together with a narrative of how individuals interpreted that history in their pictures.”

Public programs in June associated with the Caucasian rug exhibition include a gallery talk, a hands-on weaving studio, Georgian film screenings, lectures, and an opportunity for the public to bring in their own rugs for a historical and cultural assessment. July programs associated with “The Greatest Poem” include a gallery talk, a lecture on American Modernism, and films featuring New York City and urban life. The programs are free, with advance registration encouraged online. Regular museum admission is free courtesy of JCSM Business Partners.

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