Just about everyone likes art, but some certainly like it more than others. A few have an overwhelming passion for it, one that makes them want to take pieces home to admire always. Sarasotans Leon Ellin, James Stewart, Caryl Sheffield and Murray Bring know that passion well. All have been collecting art for many decades, driven by a love of art and a desire to appreciate the beauty that has been created. “Buying something is kind of the ultimate statement that you really do like the work,” says Ellin. “You can say you like it all you want, but if you buy it, it’s a commitment.”
Leon Ellin has been collecting art for almost 60 years now, at first by buying watercolors at art fairs in Chicago. Ellin and his wife Marge “started buying art before we got married,” he says. “That became our thing.”
People collect what they can afford, he adds. He began with watercolors because he couldn’t afford oil paintings. Art tastes also change over time, which is why that watercolor collection has since expanded to all types of art—especially glass works. Ellin loves glass art both for the presentation and the effort that goes into creating each piece. “I’ve seen [glass making] hundreds of times, I know how they make it, and it’s still like magic,” he says. “When the glass comes out [of the heat source], it’s orange, and I can’t tell the difference between final colors, but the artist can. It’s quite amazing.”
Ellin and his wife frequent museums and art galleries all over the area, always on the lookout for something that catches his eye. “Our general approach is to go see everything. Even if we don’t like it, we can still learn something,” he says. Ellin emphasizes an interest in the back story of each piece—from emotional inspiration to the physical act of making it—and he prefers buying direct from the artist. “You get to understand a lot more about the piece,” he explains. “A gallery will sometimes have an artist statement, but it’s just a piece of what they’re selling. The artist has some part of themselves invested in the painting. It’s a different type of conversation you’re engaging in.”
Ellin doesn’t have a singular favorite in his collection, because he makes sure that he loves everything that he owns. “I decided long ago, that if we didn’t really love something, to get rid of it. You run out of wall space after a while.” He’s particularly fond of his works from Natasha Mazurka (who paints and embosses, sometimes using colored vinyl)) and a self-portrait from longtime Sarasota artist, the late Julio de Diego. His paintings from Mazurka are relatively new acquisitions, purchased from her 2019 Order Systems exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Ellin says that he has always loved art, and that many of his family members created art themselves. “Unfortunately, I got none of their talent,” he jokes.
James Stewart & Caryl Sheffield
Spouses James Stewart and Caryl Sheffield (pictured at top) are a collecting duo, even though their primary areas of interest don’t always overlap. “We collect primarily art by African-American artists, although we also have some pieces that are African sculptures, and some from the African diaspora in the Caribbean,” says Stewart. Sheffield adds that, within that framework, Stewart focuses more on political imagery, while she prefers images of family life.
“I was an activist as a college undergraduate,” Stewart says. “One of the posters on my wall was of Black Panther Huey Newton. I always had the nature to find ways to improve the lives of the people, to look for social realism and find strategies to try to address that in art.” Sheffield, though, prefers realism that feels more comforting. “My interest is really having images that reflect me, my family, my culture, my heritage. It soothes my soul to see images of Black folks displayed on my wall.”
The two are always on the lookout for new works. “Finding art by African-American artists is very challenging,” says Stewart. “We employ a lot of different strategies to collect. When we travel, we bring back pieces of art. We go to galleries, we go to private shows, we have a couple of brokers that we work with.”
The two have some gems in their collection, but they don’t have the same favorites. Sheffield’s favorite work is Lilies From Charles, a print by contemporary Black visual artists Gilbert Young and Charles Bibbs that shows a beautiful young Black woman holding a bouquet of lilies. “In my younger years, before I went gray, everyone used to say how she looked like me,” Sheffield says. Stewart is fond of their landscape paintings by Richard Mayhew (whose works, influenced by jazz, Abstract Expressionism and the African-American identity, were recently seen in the exhibit Transcendence on the Ringling College campus), saying, “They’re abstract, but they’re very soothing. When you look at them, there’s a lot of serenity in the beauty of nature.”
The two enjoy sharing their passion and say they often showcase their collection in churches or with help of other organizations, so the next generation can also fall in love with art. Sheffield sometimes visits schools, interacting with children and helping them discover what styles of art they like most. “We don’t believe [art] should just sit in the house,” says Stewart. “We want other people to experience it.”
Murray Bring fell for art and collecting through a “serendipitous” bit of chance. He was invited to lunch with an art dealer. When he stepped into her building, he was awed.
“I walked in, and it was phenomenal,” he recalls. “She had beautiful works of art hanging from the ceiling, on the walls, all over the apartment. It was so impactful.” It was there he acquired his first works, including one by 20th-century painter Milton Avery (a seminal link between representational and abstract styles), who would become his favorite artist.
Bring’s main interests in art are American paintings and sculptures from the pre- and post-World War II periods, with a particular fascination with work from the 1960s and 1970s. He collected a lot from up-and-coming artists from that period in Washington, D.C., where he lived at the time. Many of the creators he admired would eventually go on to be nationally recognized, including Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan and color field painter Sam Gilliam (whose works were recently on view at The Ringling). He was especially close with another renowned color field painter, Gene Davis. “I would get invited to Sunday brunch in [Davis’s] house,” says Bring. “After brunch, he’d lead guests down to his studio to show us what he’d been working on.” Bring frequently bought paintings at those brunches; outside of meeting with the artists, he also bought from many art dealers in New York.
Bring says there isn’t one specific style that intrigues him; he just likes what calls to him. “I’m drawn to a piece because I think it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s the structure, the color, the fluidity of the piece. When my eye keeps going back to it, there’s something about the piece that really speaks to me.” His interests have allowed Bring to amass a varied collection, but he has remained loyal to Milton Avery, even after decades of collecting. His favorite work in his collection: Avery’s Hills on the Sea, an oil painting filled with vibrant shades of green.
Later this year, The Ringling plans an exhibition featuring a number of Bring’s donated pieces, from artists including sculptors Anne Truitt and Mark di Suvero. Bring also helped found the new Sarasota Art Museum, as he recognized a lack of contemporary art in Sarasota museums. “I think it’s totally different from The Ringling, and it fills a gap that hadn’t been filled,” he says.