by Rachel Stephens
The home of Mike LeBurkien is eclectic, mesmerizing and filled to the brim with art and antiques. From magazine cutouts to a neon Lady of Guadalupe, from contemporary oil paintings to a 19th century porcelain toilet-there is a lot to take in when one walks through the front door. So, as Mike says, nobody who comes in stays quiet. His collection calls out for questions and engages visitors immediately. Why is there a marble mantelpiece in the dining room that frames a painting instead of a fireplace?
Over lunch, Mike and I discussed this as well as his philosophy on collecting. Like most of his visitors, I had a lot of questions. His responses formed a very interesting story, one that I found educational and enlightening; luckily, I recorded our conversation. Here is a compilation of Mike’s thoughts on creating his very personal collection. Enjoy.
This is my second collection; there is nothing here that is more than two years old. In a previous life, I was married for many decades. The collection I had then was quite different. That collection was more antique in its tenor. The one I have now is more contemporary. Starting this new collection from scratch was liberating. There is something very interesting about just getting rid of everything and starting over.
I like the process of collecting because I like to meet the art dealers. In many cities, they are amongst the most interesting people. When I first began, I asked around and looked at artaustin.org to find out where to go. I visited most of the galleries but there were two that stood out, what I thought was quality of work and of people running the galleries. One was Davis Gallery and one was Wally Workman’s gallery. I really don’t like running around a lot, I like to find the people I like in the city and go to them. It is their métier to keep their walls interesting.
One of my criteria in collecting is to find a lot of beauty for as little money as possible. Sometimes it’s a photograph, sometimes it’s an ancient icon, sometimes it is something that was drawn yesterday. Like the soup kitchen photograph I got at the Austin Historical Center for 25 cents. Look at the beauty in their faces, the concern they have for the people they are serving the soup to, the policeman and the very proper ladies who are living out a decent mission in life feeding poor people- I don’t know how you capture that intentionally. All of that captured in one photograph, I think it’s good enough to be in any museum.
Everybody thinks my collection is wonderful, magnificent. But a lot of it doesn’t cost much at all. But it speaks to people. It’s an affirmation of life. I don’t buy anything to accrue in value, because when I die I’m going to give it all away anyways. I don’t invest in art as a money thing. I collect beauty; I collect a celebration of the human experience. That is why I’ve always liked figurative work, I feel part of humanity. I have photos by Alan Pogue and paintings by Kermit Oliver, Janel Jefferson, America Martin, Tracey Harris and many more. I feel connected to humanity through antiques too, even more so in my previous collection. I really enjoyed for a long time relating to people who lived in the past, created in the past. It’s only 500 years since Shakespeare, you could almost have 5 or so people from different generations touch hands. That’s why I collect mantles, and because they’re beautifully carved and the material is so incredible, French marble. It’s an art that’s lost really. Who carves mantles anymore? I believe mantles are objects of art themselves; they don’t need to have a fire in them or anything. I use them to frame paintings or display other antiques. It’s a way of relating to the 19th century; this is Napoleon and all that stuff, right here.
I also sometimes cut pictures out of art books or magazines. People come in and don’t know what’s original or not, even cultured or educated people. It doesn’t have the joy of owning the original but if that’s not possible and you love the art, it’s really nice.
I like to support the cultural institutions in Austin and I love my city. Every once in awhile, you see something that is really outstanding or an artist that you want to have in your collection. I can take down some of the magazine pictures. People will come in and say you have no room for anything else, and I’ll say yes I do, right over there. There are a few areas that still need improvement.
All of my art mostly has stories connected to something next to it, or sort of next to it. Here is the seashell carved into the mantle, which relates to the ocean that is related to the seagulls in the Michael Frary painting the mantle frames. And then there on the wall I have David Everett’s three-dimensional seagull. And that relates to the outdoors and that relates to the Bob Rohm’s oil painting of aspens. And on top of the mantle, those are Japanese bronzes with nature scenes: birds, vines, owers, and snakes. And this pink glass vase from the 1940s is like a shell. It is fun to put together these themes. It’s like living in an art museum, which is really the ideal place to live.
“Everybody thinks my collection is wonderful, magnificent…it speaks to people. It’s an affirmation of life.”- Mike LeBurkein
I feel every artist feels close to, I don’t know what other word to use, God. I do think there is a process of creation and that is what the artist connects to because the artist is always creating something new and beautiful. The artist is a wonderful visual creator. They show the beauty of being alive, the pathos of being alive. Because we’re all, as the bible says, we are all flowers that grow in the desert and wilt, swiftly. That’s what the artist captures, the beauty of the ower, of the human condition and of the sadness of the wilting, too.
I don’t think there is anything in my collection that I don’t notice; there is nothing that I have that I forget. Everything… it’s like people telling you their stories, all the time, all the time, all the time. That’s what I like.