interview Interview with Art Collector Ronald Maurice Ollie o Frank Stewart, The Bow, 1996 Black and white digital photography By Mary Anne Rose C H I LDHO OD FOU N DATIONS AN D SAI NT LOU IS RO OTS MA R How would you describe your art collection? RMO My art collection consists primarily of abstract works by African American artists born between 1900 and 1957. Sure, there are some pieces in the collection that don’t fit that description, but those are the exceptions. Overall, some of the work is purely abstract, even geometric, and some fall into the category of figurative abstraction. I started purchasing my first artwork in 1989 — at a rather slow rate in the beginning, perhaps because at the time I hadn’t yet committed to becoming a collector. I do believe, though, that I was preparing to become a more serious collector for a long time; I just didn’t consciously know it yet. MAR Were you a collector as a child? R MO I was! Baseball cards, marbles, even pennies — I was always collecting something. It gave me a kick to collect stuff, and I’d always be thinking: “What am I going to get next?” Books, too. I started collecting books, paperbacks, when I was very young. I had my own little library as a child. MAR Why do you think you became such an avid collector? R MO For me, collecting is about having things that I love around me. Just the thought, for instance, of storing my art collection away from home bothers me. I want the paintings close to me, where I can see them — where I live. The closets in my home are big and deep, so I can pack everything into them. MAR Tell me how you were introduced into the life of art and culture. My mother and father would take me to musicals in St. Louis. The Municipal Opera — or The Muny, as it is called — put on shows in Forest Park. You had the option of paying or not, so we always went for free. We’d take the bus, but I was only six or seven years old, really young, and I’d be kicking and screaming the whole way. We’d see all the musicals that came in the summer — shows like The King and I and The Music Man. We’d also get the record albums to play at home. And I just started to love musicals — no more kicking and screaming. They touched my soul. To this day I love musical theater and the standards. I used to sing them in college. We had a “Nightclub Night” in college where I would perform. That was my introduction to culture. Then my parents had me go to art school, for which I had no talent at all. school? RMO It was held in mid-town St. Louis in the summer — a two or three-week-long program. I would go and learn about the creative arts in various forms. They even had ceramics! And, again, I had zero talent, but I did have an enormous appreciation for it. My sister had all the artistic talent. She was really good! But drawing intimidated me. I have other gifts, but drawing is not one of them. In sixth grade we had art class, and I hated it. I remember this vividly, because I see it as a defining moment for me as a collector. I was totally intimidated. I said, “Oh boy, I have to draw that chair, that couch,” whatever, and I just couldn’t do it. I would try, but it was ridiculous. Even I had to laugh. Then one day my classmate, William Birch, began doing free abstractions in color, and I said, “what are you doing there?” “Man,” he replied, “you ought to try this, it feels great,” And I said, “Boy, I like the way it looks,” and I started doing it. I guess, for lack of a better term, we were free-forming — playing with colors and various gestures. I loved it. Right, I loved it, I felt free! And from that moment on, two things: Number one, I was no longer intimidated when art class came around, and, number two, I embraced abstract art. I must have been about 12 or 13 at the time. And that’s when I became a lover of abstract art. The good thing about this was that my teacher, Mr. Arthur Sharp, encouraged it. He must have thought: “He can’t do the figurative stuff, so this is something he can do.” MA R He probably saw how happy you were. RMO Maybe that was it! I had become a different person. Now, when we had art class, I would just beam. And I didn’t even make that connection until about five years ago. I was thinking about abstract art, and it hit me, that moment in the sixth grade. MA R When did you first go to a museum? RMO I went early on, I’d say I was about nine or 10. I went to the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. I used to love going there, and I’d get this feeling every time I went — a kind of joyous anticipation. My mother exposed me to the art world at a very early age, and we would go to museums as a family. I remember the first time I saw a Rodin piece. I’ve always particularly loved sculpture because it’s 3-dimensional: you can walk around a sculpture, see it from various angles, and it’s as if you’re seeing entirely different pieces. Rodin was a stand-out. I loved his work. As I got older, I would even take women I was dating to the museum. I thought it was rather sexy, but my friends would tease me about it. So I kept it secret — the fact that a lot of women really liked going to the museum. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and both of my parents had migrated from the South. My mother came from Mississippi — Greenville — which is in the Delta, and my father from Arkansas. They met at church when they were in their 20’s and got married. MAR Art school? What kind of art RMO It started out with music. My parents and my older siblings always told me that I could sing before I could talk. This was a hard thing for me to comprehend, but as I get older I can see that it’s entirely possible. I’ve spoken to other singers who say the same thing — who found their voice in music before they learned to talk. According to my parents, I would hum “How much is that doggie in the window?”— not a very auspicious beginning, but you have to start somewhere. Both my mother and father always encouraged me to sing, and so it went from there.