The passion of a collector was evident the day Elizabeth Van Gelder and I met at the de Menil Gallery where 250 objects from her extensive collection are on display at the Groton School. Van Gelder’s collection of tribal artifacts and textiles, her “gathering of beauty,” began in 1989 with her travels while on sabbatical from her position as art teacher there.
“I started collecting because I’m an artist and I’m a traveler,” she explained. “What excites me is going to a place where no one looks like me or speaks my language. That’s what I find the most interesting. It’s about different. It’s different from what I am and who I am and what I know. And so, every trip I take is, for me, a time to really learn something new.
“When I started collecting, I focused on material culture. I realized that was one of the most intimate ways to know about a people or a culture. It tells you what they use in their lives. It tells you what they have in their homes, what they value. It tells you about their rituals. It’s the more intimate part of their lives — their family life or their spiritual life.
“The things here have to do with the people I’ve encountered and visited on these trips. I was attracted to the innate beauty, the design characteristics, the motifs, the patterns, and found that these elements repeated in different places. A pattern that was in Timor, something similar might be found in Africa. I was intrigued by that, the cross-cultural influences.”
For Van Gelder, part of human commonality is our need, in whatever culture, for narratives to help us parse our relationships, our physical world and our spirituality. “I started thinking about how everything that I collected has a narrative to it,” she said. “I did not always know the narrative, but I could imagine what that narrative might be or I would read about it. I have a huge library of books. I learned a lot of what I know about these objects once I got home, did research and tried to get into more depth. I found that what I had wasn’t just a mask, it’s a mask of a certain character in a certain play.”
She was awestruck when she considered the amount of time that must have gone into each handmade piece for everyday use, either to deify ancestors or inhabit sacred spaces. There are layers of meaning in the objects. Labor intensive, delicate ornamentation on utilitarian objects, either for daily use or rituals, transformed ordinary objects into extraordinary ones.