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The First Time (But Not the Last) That I Bought a Work of Art

I bought my first work of art, The Family by Romare Bearden, at age twenty-three in 1976 while working on an oil rig in the Persian Gulf. I had signed a two-year contract to work on an offshore drilling platform, laboring for seven days a week, twelve hours per day, for four straight weeks per run. This exhausting and dangerous work as a roughneck on an oil rig a third of the way around the world from my home of LaGrange, Georgia, was not the traditional career of someone typically interested in art, much less an art collector. My later profession as a master stonemason was also an unlikely path to a fascination with artists and understanding the specifics of their work, but after buying that first Bearden print, I was hooked, and collecting art became a lifelong passion. I started collecting at a young age and, almost seven hundred works later, am still collecting and exhibiting parts of the collection across the United States in partnership with my wife, Missy, a retired high school math teacher.

The year before I signed on to work in the Persian Gulf, I spent the winter and spring with my uncle William L. May, high in the Rocky Mountains where he had settled in a retirement home. William, called Sir William by many of his friends, had been an art collector and patron for more than thirty years and quickly infected me with his curiosity and passion for works of art. This was not a difficult task, living among some of his twelve hundred old master prints that he and his wife Carol had amassed in their years of collecting. Sir Thomas’s advice was to learn a solid, useful trade and to use my extra money to buy art. Soon I was making regular purchases, and I eventually bought many works directly from the artists’ studios while at the same time making close and enduring friendships. After four decades of working with stone and collecting art, I have never regretted the decision to follow my uncle’s advice, and I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his passion and insight while also providing a focus and much-needed guidance for me in those early days of doubt and uncertainties.

Wes and Missy with "The Family" by Romare Bearden

Wes and Missy with “The Family” by Romare Bearden

After forty years of collecting, Missy and I have amassed a collection of more than seven hundred works, mostly focused on works on paper. The largest body of work, which started with that first Bearden print purchase, is more than four hundred works by African American artists of all periods, but dominated by living artists. The majority of the other works are postwar American prints and drawings with a few paintings, sculpture, and historical works mixed in. We still love to look and learn as we continue to collect primarily the work of African American artists, both well known and little- or under-recognized artists that are doing some of the freshest work in the country.

I felt gratified when I saw the large Romare Bearden retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, in 2003. Of the many masterworks in that impressive show, there was only one print, The Family, the very one which was the first work of art I bought. Under the guidance of Sir William, I started collecting on a solid foundation and still draw inspiration for buying future works for the collection with the soulful energy I saw, and still feel, when looking at the Bearden. The end of collecting is not in sight, but I will never forget the importance and feel of the first one.