A couple's passion for collecting art
Photographs by Wendy Carlson
Along the road that runs between Interlaken and Stockbridge is a modest ’60s-style dwelling set back from the street. There’s no sign of any landscaping except for a spread of vinca near the front entrance. It’s intentional. The owners, Lance and Chelly Sterman, enjoy the look of the natural surroundings. The views of Butternut to the south and the sprawling wetlands to the east make a manicured garden unnecessary.
However, once the front door is opened and the threshold is crossed, everything changes. It’s as if you’ve stepped into a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One-of-a-kind pieces dominate the space, commanding both floor and wall space. They’re around every corner, along every step, in almost every room, both upstairs and down.
The couple, recently retired, bought the house 21 years ago as a weekend getaway from their primary residence in New Jersey. Now they live in the Berkshires full-time, but they’re still acclimating to the area, getting to know the community, and making improvements to the house.
Throughout their professional careers and travels, the Stermans pursued their passion of seeking out artists both known and unknown. Their taste is personal, varied, and eclectic. They know what they like and like to discover new artists—some of whom have become wildly successful. For this couple, it’s the seeking and the finding that excites them. Art for them is about the pleasure it affords them and not the monetary value.
Two Richard MacDonald sculptures, The Gymnast and Nureyev, both bronzes, share space in the hallway entrance with three colorful pieces by Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante. Lance picked up the Nureyev while traveling in the Midwest. The sculpture suggests Nureyev at the end of a performance. “It makes me think of beginnings and endings,” explains Lance, “which makes it perfect for a new beginning in this house.” Leaning against a wall is a stack of paintings waiting to be hung. At the front of the stack is a striking charcoal drawing of a nude. When asked the name of the artist, Lance, with a modest smile, claims it as his own work.
There’s so much to enjoy and savor in the space, it’s almost overwhelming. In one corner is a glass-encased, detailed collage titled Little Italy by artist Red Grooms. A row of paintings hangs above, but one in particular catches the eye. It’s photorealist Chuck Close’s image of Philip Glass. Across the room near the fireplace, poised on a pedestal, is a sculpture which turns out to be yet another example of Lance’s work. He’s reserved about his talent as an artist but admits playing with clay since he was six. This particular piece was made at Grounds for Sculpture, a park and museum in Trenton, New Jersey.
A New York taxi scene bursts across a canvas hanging above the fireplace. It’s by the Italian artist, Rocco. “He flies into New York and photographs street scenes. Then flies back to his studio in Italy and recreates the scene in a painting,” Lance describes. A small glass sculpture adorns one end of the dining-room table. It’s a particular favorite of Chelly’s. “When it catches the sunlight it sparkles with color,” she explains, “but it’s beautiful even without the sunlight.” The wall above the table makes a statement of its own. Two large screen prints from New Mexico painted by R.C. Gorman dominate except for the Miró lithograph the couple brought back from Barcelona.
Discussions flow easily about each piece, which the couple know intimately, their common interest having stretched over decades. Each artwork has a personal story behind it: This piece they found in Minnesota, that piece in Barcelona, another in New Mexico, another in the Midwest.
We pass through the kitchen—the only part of the house with no art—where a slate staircase leads to the basement. But this is no ordinary basement filled with storage and old furniture. The couple have devoted a space for large-gallery art. There’s too much to take in all at once. A trio of faces reflected behind glass by Janusz Valentovich immediately catch the eye. And then just above it, there’s Rockwell at his easel in Triple Self-Portrait, one of two Norman Rockwell lithographs that they own.
On the other side of the room, displayed on a table, is a book of twelve Native American lithographs done by the Fauvist artist, Nieto. Chelly pops on a pair of white-cotton gloves and carefully turns each page. “They’re amazing,” she exclaims, “so bright and colorful.” Just behind the table, against the wall, stands a hand-carved Mexican wooden cabinet the couple found in New Mexico. On the opposite side of the room, a large, vivid-blue, Huichol Indian yarn painting hugs the wall.
Across from the gallery, Lance has commandeered a space of his own. It has a cave-like appearance, due to the exposed-rock foundation on which the house is built, and is filled with high-tech German MBL speakers. Lance has a few of his own mementos on display, the most significant being an autographed menu signed by Stephen Sondheim. Asked why he has a funky doll in his man cave he says that Chelly brought it home one day as joke.
Back upstairs, Chelly also has a room of her own. Her bookshelf is laden with Jemez Pueblo Indian “storytellers,” hand-coiled clay dolls, collected from Oaxaca, Mexico, as well as an assortment of Mexican folk art and pots from New Mexico. The Mexican theme continues across the room, where Jorge Santos’s bead-worked bear stands at attention. Chelly says the piece originated from peyote-inspired dreams often depicting fierce-looking wolves or coyotes. “I chose the bear because he looked friendly.”
Around the corner in the bedroom, there’s even more art to be discovered. The most intriguing is the hand-carved, free-standing, floor-to-ceiling mirror that swivels back and forth. The artisan, from Ashfield, North Carolina, is unknown. Chelly points out a framed kite by Japanese artist Franun Toledo. She picked up the piece, now priceless, for $60. Not only is it exquisite, but all the proceeds from the sale of these kite pieces are donated to children’s art schools. Just outside the bedroom is a Paik. It’s the kind of art some unknowingly would claim their three-year-old could have done, except this one is priceless.
The Stermans are serious collectors of art and are passionate about every piece. For them, each item tells a story—of its discovery and of the sheer joy of collecting art.