Tam Kiehnhoff’s Texas art only part of eclectic collection
This is the first in an ongoing series about Southeast Texas art collectors.
Sitting in her study with a quilt-in-progress sprawled across her lap, Tam Kiehnhoff threads a needle while describing what attracted her to the craft.
“The cool thing about a quilt is all the different possibilities of colors that go together,” she said. “If you make a quilt too matchy-match, it’s bland, it’s boring. You have to have spark in a quilt — you got to have some light color and dark to contrast, to make your eyes move.”
The spark lighting up the quilt in her hands is a microcosm of the interior of her Houston home. Splashes of color, textures, patterns, forms and figures are arranged salon-style on the walls, a spectacular kaleidoscope of Keihnhoff’s extensive collection.
The former Beaumont resident began collecting modern and contemporary art decades ago with her husband, Tom, and the collection today includes an impressive survey of major Texas artists.
“Before we lived in Beaumont, we started collecting in Colorado,” Kiehnhoff said. “We had two really good friends there that were mid-century/modern art dealers who came to visit us and liked a lot of our collected stuff, but they said we were missing art. They suggested looking at contemporary regional art and mid-century regional art.”
Tam’s initial interest can be traced to childhood memories of holidays with her grandfather visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. This interest was cultivated by reading art publications and eventually a coming-of-age trip hitchhiking across Europe.
“When I went to Europe, I just went from one city full of museums to another city full of museums,” she said. “I went to all the museums. It was just something I really loved.”
Although admiring the works of big-name artists, Kiehnhoff considered the pecuniary and intrinsic advantages in collecting works by local artists.
“I think our friends in Colorado, who had started us on buying regional art, made me realize that I could save for a long time, spend a whole bunch of money and get a mediocre print by a major American or international artist, or I could spend much less money and buy really wonderful, original works by regional artists,” she said.
“When you are collecting regional art, you are out of the big art market scene. Another thing that is interesting about researching these works, is the potential to meet and become friends with some of these artists. I have just gotten to know a lot of interesting folks in their eighties and nineties.”
Keihnhoff’s collection is the result of decades of networking with local artists and dealers, as well as researching works and artists in forgotten catalogs.
“Through the names of the artists’ works I would buy at the estate sales, I would try to track them down or talk to Lynne Lokensgard, who taught art history at Lamar for several years, and was the former director at the Dishman Museum of Art,” she said. “Lynne hooked me up with some of these older artists who had been associated with Lamar, so I did a lot of detective work and shopped for 23 years in Beaumont.”
While touring her home, she spills names of significant figures in the Texas art world — she is on first-name terms with many of them. Curators often approach Kiehnhoff to borrow work for exhibitions. Art by Maudee Carron, Forrest Bess and Robert Preusser has been featured in retrospectives on Texas modern and contemporary art.
Part of the fun in collecting is not just the final result or the goal in adhering to a certain category, but the search, Tam said.
“I am a pretty spontaneous collector and circumstantial collector,” she said. “I’m a much more, ‘I see it and like it and buy it.’ I certainly have an aesthetic that I am going after and even though I have a lot of different styles, most of it looks good together. I have a point of view that is aesthetically based rather than fitting a category.”
Gifts from loved ones and her circumstantial collecting habits often lead to smaller collections that fall outside the Texas art theme which dominates the larger collection. In one room, African art stands out against abstract canvases.
“Our friend Russel Prince has a nice African collection and he has given us some things as gifts,” she said. “I’ve bought a couple as well. We have a few African masks I got at ‘Paint the Town Red.’ That’s what I mean by circumstantial collector. They are really cool and on sale, but I am not really a collector of African art. I’m not knowledgeable about them, but I loved them and I bought them.”
In another room, dozens of souvenir butterfly plates from Brazil sweep across the wall. A lucky find at a local rummage sale ignited a passionate search for more pieces.
“I had found one at an estate sale in Beaumont and I went to eBay searching for more,” she said. “The one that I found in Beaumont was all blue, but when I started looking on eBay, I found that the solid blue ones were a little expensive but the ones with the patterns were not. I thought they were so much more wonderful and I went after it because I wanted a whole wall of them. The compositions are made up of butterfly and moth wings.”
Her collection continues to grow and regardless of some other collectors’ impulses to reassess and trim the fat in their collections, Tam is adamant in retaining her works for personal reasons.
“There are collectors who are way more disciplined than I am who will get rid of things they consider their lesser things in order to upgrade their collection,” she said. “I really admire that, but that’s not me.
“Even though there are works in my collection that I know aren’t as good as other works, I might love them for one reason or another. I might love them for the story, I might love them for the artist. I might
Tam was at Triangle Aids Network in Beaumont for many years. Her passion for collecting regional work has led her to her current position as chair of the Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art.
Tam’s collection is truly a cabinet of curiosities — designer plates are displayed in the kitchen, Pre-Columbian miniature figurines rest on a table, and textiles are folded and stacked on shelves against walls covered with canvases and prints.
Her collection is not just an accumulation of objects, but an accumulation of perspectives, experiences and facets of her subjectivity.
By Caitlin Duerler