By Rod Lee
The little old town of Upton might be about the last place anyone would think of as home to a major art collection. But that is exactly the case in the presence of Spaightwood Galleries, owned and operated by Sonja Hansard-Weiner, president, and her husband Andrew Weiner, director.
Situated in the former Upton Unitarian Church at the intersection of Route 140 and Maple Ave., Spaightwood houses more than 9000 works of fine art from the 15th Century to the 21s, many of them on paper, many featuring such renowned names in the field as Helen Frankenthaler (an abstract impressionist who was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting), Marc Chagall (an early modernist of Russian-French heritage) and Susan Rothenberg (an American contemporary painter who lives in the New Mexico desert and whose pieces have been compared to those of Georgia O’Keeffe).
How the couple landed in Upton, taking up residence in a late 1800s church and establishing their collection in what had been the sanctuary, upstairs, is as interesting a story as the exhibition of works by French painter, printmaker, poet and essayist Gerard Titus-Carmel that Mr. Weiner and Ms. Hansard-Weiner were readying for public viewing last week.
The move to Upton happened entirely by chance in 2004. Back in 1980, the year they launched Spaightwood in Madison, Wisconsin (a name derived from their residences on Wood Lane and then Spaight St. in that city), they had no reason to consider relocating. Mr. Weiner had retired after thirty-five years as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin and Ms. Hansard-Weiner had retired from Madison Area Technical College. “We had an easy commute to places and were close to the beach,” Mr. Weiner said.
Invited by their eldest son (a professor at Wellesley who was living in Mendon at the time) to come and check out Massachusetts for a possible move nearer to him, they were taken by a realtor to see a property on Rt. 140 just north of the one they now occupy. Walking back in the other direction “we saw these two stained-glass windows and a for sale sign,” Mr. Weiner said. “We asked to see the church. We thought seriously for about fifteen seconds. It was clearly meant to be.” So they left a 4000-square-foot historically registered house in Madison where their collection was referred to by one critic as “a best-kept secret,” to come east, bringing with them four moving trucks full of their belongings.
The result is what the affable and mild-mannered Mr. Weiner and his equally gracious wife describe as “perhaps the largest gallery of private art in New England.” The gallery is open on Saturdays from 10:00 to 5:00, on Sundays from noon to 6:00 and at other times by arrangement. Their art is not limited to what is on the floor and walls of the space they employ for exhibitions. In their side garden along Maple St. sits a huge, rather abstract stone sculpture. “It was made in Spain,” Mr. Weiner said. “Stands ten feet tall and weighs one ton. It represents humanity reaching for the stars” (the official name of the piece is “Homage To Brancusi”). “It took five people and a crane to put it there,” he said, pointing to the spot.
How Mr. Weiner and Ms. Hansard-Weiner got into art in the first place is another fascinating aspect of their journey. In 1976—the bicentennial year—they were taking a car trip from Madison to Boulder, Colorado to see family. The trip turned into a whole lot of added stops: El Paso, East Texas, Pennsylvania, Cleveland Heights, White Plains and Washington for a visit while there to the National Gallery. They drove back. “We were three-pack-a-day cigarette smokers,” Mr. Weiner said. “Our three children (they ultimately had five) said to us they would never get in the car with us again if we didn’t quit smoking. So we smoked our last cigarettes and haven’t had one since. Now we had money so we started buying art.” They literally built their art collection from scratch with “cigarette money,” starting off “randomly,” then going to Paris for a belated honeymoon, looking at some artworks at the Galerie Maeght and from there “every time we sold something, we bought something. We’ve been seriously buying for thirty-one years. It keeps us young. If it weren’t for this we would still be teaching in Madison, where there are no retirement restrictions.”
Mr. Weiner and Ms. Hansard-Weiner brought the same investment of attention and effort to rehabilitating the vacant church as they have in repositioning and expanding their art collection. After buying the property from an owner who was told by the town that he couldn’t “condo-ize” it, as Ms. Hansard-Weiner puts it, they had to replace “dirty industrial carpet” in what had been the sanctuary with new flooring. “That was a $48,000 surprise and there were many other surprises,” Mr. Weiner said. They also installed higher-illumination lighting that shows off the beautiful dark-wood ceiling—a personal favorite of Ms. Hansard-Weiner’s.
Of their decision to snap up the church for an art gallery and their home, Mr. Weiner said “this was not a conscious buy, it was love at first sight.”
“A miracle in a way,” Ms. Hansard-Weiner said.
The symbolism of exhibiting the works of a master like Gerard Titus-Carmel is not lost on the couple.
“Titus-Carmel also lives in a church!” Mr. Weiner said. “His studio is in what used to be the chapel.”
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.