First published: Winter 2013
Chuck Rosenak is the reigning paterfamilias in the field of American folk art. With his late wife Jan he gathered four decades of experience in the field, in the thick of it all. Collector first, then writer, lecturer and archivist, he was among a small handful of people promoting American self-taught art, starting in the 1970s.
I recently had a long talk with Chuck discussing his thoughts, views and recollections over the years. The interview took place on March 9, 2013, in the Robert A. Roth Study Library at Intuit, Chicago, Illinois.
James Arient: How did you get started collecting and what was the impetus that got you going?
Chuck Rosenak: Jan and I had been collecting all of our married lives, but we went to the Whitney Biennial in 1973 and saw a piece of sculpture by Edgar Tolson. We thought it was the best piece in the show. It had been placed there by Michael Hall, a Cranbrook sculptor and folk art collector. We called Michael and he was a bit secretive, but eventually he told me Tolson lived on a mountain in Campton, Kentucky – and if you go there, you might be shot because they are making bootleg whiskey there. We went to Campton and smelled the mash brewing. We found Tolson living in two trailers and he carved a few pieces for us, and that was the start of it all.
JM: Were those the first pieces of self-taught art that you bought?
JM: Very interesting. Was he also the first folk artist you visited?
CR: Yes, he was the first folk artist we knew.
JM: How did you find artists back then?
CR: We travelled all over the country. Jan was the expert on finding artists. For instance; in 1980, Bob Bishop, the Director of The American Folk Art Museum, suggested that we visit Leo and Dorothy Rabkin at their home in Greenwich Village. The Rabkins told us they “had a new discovery, Sam Doyle”. Bishop was right, as always. We were excited to hear about their new discovery. But the Rabkins wouldn’t, or probably couldn’t, tell us where the artist lived. That Sam Doyle was a Gullah-speaking black Southerner was obvious. But where did he live? We traded two Ashbys for two Doyles that day, and Jan went to work.