Collector's Eye: Gail Severn

Ketchum, Idaho, is a hot destination for art collectors who relish works of an astonishing variety by emerging and internationally acclaimed artists. It has not always been so for this small town at the base of Sun Valley’s famed Bald Mountain. When Gail Severn first arrived here in the mid-1970s, Ketchum’s art scene was a small but passionate mix of photographers, painters, potters and, luckily, people with extraordinary vision.

Then a fledgling collector, Severn joined Glenn Janss in her early efforts to develop the Sun Valley Center for the Arts that attracted resident artists like Robert Glenn Ketchum, Jim Romberg and Jerry Uelsemann. Today, her collection has grown exponentially to include black and white photography, paintings, mixed media works, sculptures and, among other things, a collection of ancient paintbrushes. Severn is a much loved and respected art collector who has facilitated the education of new collectors and enhanced the collections of patrons with years of experience through her own gallery, now in its 30th year.

Severn admits her approach to collecting is “perhaps not very disciplined.” While that may be true in the eclectic nature of her acquisitions, it is certainly not true in her passion for remaining faithful to one’s own instincts in collecting.

“The wonderful thing about collecting, especially for young people, is that it doesn’t really matter if your passion is for snow globes, hand tools or photography. What matters the most is that you enjoy the process of collecting, that you continue learning and have a great deal of fun doing it,” she says.


Western Art & Architecture: What inspired you to collect art?

Severn: I collect things that speak to me; things that I have a very visceral personal reaction to. What’s most important to me is my response to the work, how the work speaks to my heart. And so, while I have two very specific areas in my collection — black and white photography and the Pacific Northwest School — I also collect things that might not fall into the realm of art. I collect old books. In particular, because I am a gardener, I have a collection of older gardening books by the great European gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll. And I have a collection of older children’s books. I also collect ancient paintbrushes, mostly from China, Japan, Thailand and Korea. On my travels, that’s something I always keep an eye out for: the beautiful, old, hand-carved stone, or different materials in the handles.


WA&A: What was the first work that you purchased and from where did you purchase it?

Severn: I was an art major in my junior year at the University of Idaho, and we were fortunate enough to have Ansel Adams come and teach a class. I was truly thunderstruck, to say the least, by the passion with which he did his work and with the techniques he taught us in printing. During that year, I bought my first piece. I bought an Ansel Adams. And I had to borrow the money from my family to do that. My father was reticent to have me spend hard-earned money on photography, so I borrowed it from my grandmother. In my senior year, I bought a second piece from him, and that’s how the collection began.


WA&A: If you could be any artist in history, who would you be?

Severn: I think there are a lot of very powerful artists, and so many great artists have had so many difficult struggles in their lives, that this would be a hard decision. Off the top of my head though … there is one piece that I will never forget how much it moved me. The very first time I went to Florence, Italy, and I walked into the Duomo and saw Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, it moved me to tears. I think that was one of the most powerful emotional responses I ever had to a piece of art. To experience this beautiful, small, carved sculpture of Mary Magdalene was so powerful for me. Maybe I would choose Donatello from the standpoint of being able to understand what went through the process in his mind in creating this piece because it’s so evocative and so full of constrained emotion, and yet so powerful.


WA&A: Where do you imagine your collection will be in 50 years?

Severn: Well, I hope I am still here in 50 years and still adding to my collection! I could not have imagined all the wonderful artists I would meet and get to know over the years. I just hope to have the opportunity to continue meeting new and exciting artists doing wonderful work, and that I continue to grow and broaden my vision in that process.

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