A white Styrofoam head with 100 yellow pencils sticking out of its scalp sits in the window of a first-floor office, a block from the White House. Upstairs, a bird made of bones collected from the desert squats on a shelf in the second-floor reception area, and a parade of miniature Mardi Gras floats lines the stairs.
Lawyer Steve Hessler and designer Mary Ellen Vehlow have hundreds of pieces of folk art in their 15th Street offices. Almost anywhere you turn in their offices, you can find works of whimsy, intense emotion or downright oddity. There's a gallery, too.
The husband-wife team of collectors, both 51, have plastered the walls, covered the bookshelves and filled the corners with art. A large whirligig horse hangs from the ceiling in the gallery.
"You can play with its feet," Hessler says as he gives the legs a spin. "Kids love to come here."
In 1990, Hessler and Vehlow bought an alligator head by New Orleans folk artist "Dr. Bob" (Bob Shaffer), known for turning discarded objects into art. It was their first purchase.
Within a few years, "we started going bananas," Hessler says about the couple's collecting. "It was cheap. It was fun. It was emotional. You didn't have to think too hard."
They also collect classic cars, small-batch bourbon, American wicker and snow globes (750 so far). A bit obsessive? Hessler and Vehlow don't deny it.
"Part of the intrigue that Steve and I have found in the art is getting to know the people and why they are creating the pieces," Vehlow says. "Our goal is to be involved in the creative process, and that's why we talk to the artist."
It's hard to define the boundaries of the kind of art Hessler and Vehlow collect. Hessler calls it "stuff." Outside the realm of institutional art, folk artists are often referred to as "outsider artists," "visionary," "self-taught," "primitive"; most have their own style and often a unique medium. Take Danny Hoskinson from Tennessee. Known as the "Bucket Man," the former house painter uses a blowtorch to transform five-gallon paint buckets into human faces. Jimmy Lee Sudduth, a prominent folk artist from Alabama, mixes mud and sand into his paintings.
Vehlow, "Dolly" to her friends, estimates they have 200 to 250 artists in their collection of more than 1,000 pieces. They have so many pieces that they don't have enough room to display them all in their office or Capitol Hill home. They rotate the stored pieces every three or four months.
Finding the next new artist with the next new creation helps fuel their obsession.
So they regularly attend the annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Alabama and the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building in New York City. Atlanta, they say, is also a hotbed for folk art. Vacations are spent art-hunting. "The trip we would plan would be not to go to Tuscany, but go to Tuscaloosa," Vehlow says
Two weeks ago at Kentuck, they met artist Betty Sue Matthews. Matthews is a shy woman whose son did most of the talking at her booth, Vehlow says. They bought eight of the artist's brightly colored female figures that she'd painted on flattened cardboard boxes.
"These figures come to life -- they're strong, they're bold, they're articulated. . . . They provoke a lot of thinking on your part," Vehlow says. Matthews, she says, "was almost as surprised as we were to find her."
The two have befriended many artists. When artists call with money troubles, Hessler and Vehlow invite them to mail a piece of art. "We like to actually support artists -- to help someone get through the winter," Hessler says.
Early on, Hessler says, they spent $6,000 to $8,000 a year on art. Now, he says, it's much more.
"The amount that we spend is second to the absolute passion that we have for the art that we own," Vehlow says.
They aren't collecting art as a financial investment, and they never quarrel with an artist's asking price. "The art is a piece of the artist," Hessler says. "They are laying out their soul -- don't step on their heart."
Sometimes they don't have to travel at all for art.
Patrick Long, the production manager for Vehlow's company, Pensare Design, started making folk art about four years ago. Two dozen of his pieces are on display in the office and gallery. His "Muse of Multiple Choice" is the pencil-pierced head in the front window (No. 2 pencils, of course).
"You see institutional art and it's so academic. I always saw it as so exclusionary," he says. "Working here in the presence of all this art . . . there really is a feeling that the art is accessible."
Hessler and Vehlow want more people to see their collection. They've established the Roots and Wings Foundation to educate the public about folk art. They are working with the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran (WPA/C) to open their gallery to the public, though those plans have yet to be finalized.
"We don't collect the art just to collect the art and be acquisitive. We collect the art because we're passionate about it," Vehlow says. "We really feel that it speaks to us, and part of the reason it speaks to us is the relationship we've forged with the artists and that's what we want to share."
For more information call WPA/C at 202-639-1714 or visit www.wpaconline.org.
The Galleries column will return.