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Steve Hawley

Charles M. Capps (1898-1991)
Moonlit Mills, first state, 1933
Etching and aquatint on paper

Profs' collection of Kansas art on display

By Lauren Beatty

Bill Tsutsui says he and his wife have no art training or family ties to Kansas and aren't millionaires.

Nonetheless, Tsutsui, chair of the Department of History and executive director of the Confucius Institute, and Marjorie Swann, associate professor of English, have amassed a huge collection of paintings, pottery and photographs from the Great Plains.

Now, 50 pieces from their collection are on display at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. Rick Mitchell, director of exhibition programs at the center, said "Collective Identities: Works from the Collection of Marjorie Swann and Bill Tsutsui" proves anyone can become a collector.

The exhibit closes March 8.

"We found it a little hard to relate to Kansas when we first arrived here 15 years ago," said Tsutsui. "But through art, we began to gain a new appreciation of the beauty of Kansas, especially the Kansas landscape, and a better understanding of the heritage and culture of the state."

"People have really responded," Mitchell said of the exhibition. "Plus, Bill and Marjorie have such a great attitude and are so personable. They have enthusiastically embraced their new home state."

Tsutsui and Swann began collecting Kansas art in 1999 by purchasing a 1930s woodcut by Salina artist Herschel Logan at a gallery in Lawrence. Since then, the collection has grown to more than 200 paintings, 1,200 prints and photographs, dozens of pottery pieces and a handful of more unique items, such as dolls made during the Depression.

"People think we are a little crazy driving out to Clay Center at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning to buy a little piece of 1950s Kansas pottery at auction, but this is just part of our shared obsession," Tsutsui said. "The joy of the hunt is much of the fun of collecting."

Tsutsui said the collection spans a broad range of eras and styles; there isn't one type of artwork they're attracted to. It could be that a certain piece features a distinctive sense of place or historical significance.

Because the collection is so large, some of it is in storage. The rest is on display at Tsutsui and Swann's home. A commissioned painting hangs in the front hallway. A spare bedroom is used as warehouse space. In another room, the floor is covered nearly wall to wall with bowls and vases as they wait for a permanent home, said Tsutsui.

The couple do more than just admire the art, after all, they're both scholars. Over the past few years, they have published articles and book chapters on Kansas art. Swann also teaches a course on the culture and history of collecting.

"For us, collecting is very much about crafting identities, about making us 'Kansan' and part of larger communities -- of fellow collectors, artists, gallery owners, dealer and curators -- through our shared passion for regional art," said Tsutsui.

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