Sacred Art Pilgrim
I met John Kohan at the opening of an exhibition by Scottish artist Peter Howson, “Redemption,” at Flowers Gallery in New York City. As John and I chatted about mutual friends and Howson’s work, I was struck by the realization that the collector and patron is the great unrecognized hero of the arts. The fact that John is passionate about art containing overtly religious themes was deeply refreshing to me after years of hearing artists lament that they can’t express their faith in their work because it would be professionally marginalizing. John Kohan is on a one-man campaign to prove that wrong. –Luann Jennings
LJ: How and when did you begin collecting art?
JK: It all began with one painting by Georges Rouault, probably, the most valuable piece in my collection. I was reading about this great French artist at the time and happened to see a Rouault painting titled, Christ and the Doctor, was on sale in London. It was an extravagant thing to do, but I took the plunge and bought it.
Was sacred art always your interest, or did you move toward that over time?
After buying the Rouault painting, I had a very definite sense of the kind of art I wanted to collect – works dealing with the great narratives and themes of the Bible, rendered in a contemporary style. It’s not a hard and fast rule for me, but I look for pieces with sacred/religious themes, dating from 1900 onwards. It’s often been said no great sacred art has come out of the modern era. I think, my collection proves this wrong.
How would you define, or describe, “sacred” art? What about it appeals to you?
I talk about collecting “sacred” rather than “religious” art to allow myself a bit more space in deciding what works to include in my collection. The art of American Artist George Tooker would be a good example. When I look at his wonderful painting, Bird Watchers, I get the sense his figure grouping has just witnessed the Ascension, though they look, for all intents and purposes, like a group of bird watchers gathered in Central Park. It’s a work of art, capturing a sense of transcendence outside the traditional framework of religious art imagery. There are quite a few works of this type in my collection.
What are your favorite pieces in your collection, and why are they your favorites?
It’s hard to single out one artist from all the rest. I love the work of Georges Rouault, whom, I consider, the master of contemporary sacred art, but there are also some very fine artists alive and working today who are doing exciting things. Scottish artist, Peter Howson, is one of them. Edward Knippers paints wonderful figurative pieces. I’m an avid collector of the painted, wood-carved panels of Carl Dixon and the modern icons of Jodi Simmons. I guess, my favorite artist is my latest “discovery.” I’ve just gotten a few linocuts by Mexican printmaker, Artemio Rodriguez, who works in the style of Juan Posada, the great early modern Mexican pamphlet artist. He’s high on my list right now. Two weeks ago it was Cuban graphic artists. And so it goes.
How does collecting align with your own creative work as a writer?
Once a journalist, always a journalist. Whenever I come across interesting artworks and artists, I feel the need to write about them and get the word out. This was the reason I launched my two websites: www.sacredartpilgrim.com and www.sacredartmeditations.com.
How is being a collector a calling, just as being an artist is a calling?
I’m not really comfortable with words like “calling” and “vocation.” Art collecting is just what I “do” right now, an activity that energizes me and connects me with other people. It’s my personal way of putting my faith into practice. There’s a real symbiotic relationship between the artist and the collector. It’s the very rare artist who has no interest in having someone buy – and appreciate – their work. We need each other.
How do you see your role, as a collector, fitting into the overall “ecosystem” of the arts?
If you look at the contemporary art scene as an “ecosystem,” then, it’s one experiencing intense ecological stress. In collecting contemporary sacred art, I’m trying to reclaim a piece of land, where organic, eco-friendly fruits and veggies can be grown, using the best of the old farming techniques, although, sometimes, to change the metaphor a bit, I feel like I’m saving creatures in the ark before the next Great Flood.
How is God building his Kingdom through your collection?
You’ll have to ask God about that. I just try to make informed choices within the bounds of my budget, responding to the needs of artists, when I see them, and leaving myself open for miracle and mystery. I’m always amazed by the number of art pieces that just seem to find their way to me.
Do you collect particular artists? Are there artists you’d like to collect, or particular works you’d like to own?
One thing I decided early on was not to create niches, categories, or divisions between fine art/decorative art /applied art/folk art or outsider art. I want to be an inclusive collector. The ultimate criterion I use when judging a piece is whether it has anything to say to me–and, by extension, to other people. You might say, I’m a collector of “art from the heart,’ and you will can find everything in my collection from textile pieces made by the Mola people of Panama to cardboard reproductions by Warner Sallman, my first real introduction to sacred images.
How large is your collection?
I have close to 1500 pieces, mostly prints, and still counting.
What’s your “vision” for the future of your collection?
I know, at least, two other collectors of contemporary sacred art. It’s my hope that one day all our works might be gathered together to form the core collection of a world-class museum of sacred art somewhere in the U.S., committed not just to keeping sacred works on permanent display but also to sending them out in travelling exhibitions.
John A. Kohan was born in Pennsylvania in 1952. He has a B.A.in Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in Slavic Languages & Literatures from Columbia University. Kohan was on the staff of TIME Magazine for 22 years, spending the last eight of them as Moscow Bureau Chief during the period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. He settled on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in 1996, where he began collecting and writing about sacred art. He now lives most of the year in the U.S. He owns the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection and directs the Art in the Sanctuary exhibition program at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Delaware, Ohio.