Ellsworth “Buster” Alvord ’44 calls himself a “late bloomer” when it comes to art collecting. He remembers when his wife, Nancy, brought home a six by eight painting of green and blue dabs that could be interpreted as ocean waves from a department store. Alvord regarded it and told her, “You can do better than that.” So, she proceeded to do so.
Today, after 40 years of collecting art, the Alvords have amassed approximately 100 pieces. Their current house on the shore of Lake Washington in Seattle was built 20 years ago for the specific purpose of creating more wall space for their treasures. A bona fide gallery was tops on the list of architectural enhancements, since Nancy Alvord didn’t want a drafty wing in a distant corner of the house; she insisted the gallery be located between the master bedroom and the kitchen. “She wanted to be able to walk past it every day,” says Alvord, retired professor of pathology and chief of neuropathology at the University of Washington Medical School.
Paintings, drawings, lithographs, collages, and sculptures adorn not only the gallery, but also the living room, dining room, bedroom and stairwell of the Alvord abode. The couple rarely sells their pieces at auctions because, on a few such previous occasions, the art they sold invariably became the art they wanted back. “Collecting becomes an obsession over time,” says Alvord.
The couple claims not to gravitate towards particular artists or styles—“We buy whatever catches our fancy at the time,” says Alvord—but roughly half their collection consists of lithographs by Marc Chagall and Joan Miró. “We’re both drawn to Chagall because he can’t stay within the lines,” says Alvord. “He’s whimsical, and his figures are out of proportion from normal anatomy. My wife likes the fact that his heads are frequently upside-down.” In 1976, the Alvords were fortunate enough to purchase a set of 41 lithographs created by Chagall for the French translation of The Odyssey; 16 pieces of the set now frame the fireplace, and the rest are scattered around in other rooms. A few years ago they loaned the works to a Seattle theater staging a nine-hour performance of Greek epics.
The Alvords also own a group of Miró lithographs painted in honor of the artist’s late friend Joan Prats. “They’re bizarre shapes, mostly black and depressing, but a couple have nice bright colors,” says Alvord. “One looks like a series of musical notes tramping across the scene, and another looks like a jumbled-up inchworm. They’re interesting to look at.”
The rest of the Alvord collection showcases the style of the Pacific Northwest, with works by regional artists like Mark Toby, Guy Anderson, Paul Horiuchi, and George Tsutakawa. Alvord calls Horiuchi a “master of collage”—he transforms torn pieces of paper into autumn leaves or a gathering storm. His favorite Horiuchi is a scene from the Japanese city of Kyoto, noted for its hundreds of temples, at least one of which the Alvords visited some years ago and actually saw the seven large rocks carefully placed in the even-more-carefully raked sand. Half of the collage is washed in winter white, the other half portrays a brown and green summer.
The collection also contains small sculptures by Northwest artist Patty Warashima, who delights depicting nude women engaged in everyday activities like riding bicycles or driving cars. Alvord’s favorite of these is Domestic Breakthrough, a furious naked woman throwing a knife through a Plexiglass covering. “I just love the look on her face,” chuckles Alvord. “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Take that, you s.o.b.!” The sculpture was irresistible to both Alvords: “It seemed especially appropriate since we saw it during the week of our wedding anniversary.”
The single biggest piece of art in the house is a six-foot painting by Seattle-born John Franklin Koenig. It hangs on the liing room wall, rotated 45 degrees to resemble a diamond shape rather than a square. “It had been framed so that it could also be hung straight up, but it just doesn’t look right that way. What was he thinking, making it so it wouldn’t hang like an ordinary painting?” laughs Alvord.
The couple’s “philosophy” of art collecting hinges on compromise. “Most of our pieces are spontaneous joint approvals, but every now and then we challenge each other on our preferences,” says Alvord. They attend local shows or travel to New York, San Francisco, or London to scope potential purchases. On a recent trip to San Francisco they discovered an Israeli artist, Calman Shemi, creating tapestries with a felt-like technique. One piece looks like a sailing ship, a flying Dutchman, a blue background with a giant black ship-like form against a red sea framed by multicolored clouds. It now hangs in the Alvord dining room, complementing the floor-to-ceiling windows with their view of the Sound.
The house provides an ideal setting for the art shows and fundraisers the Alvords host. Alvord sat on Haverford’s Board of Managers, and was president of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra Board of Trustees 30 years ago. He is still president of the Alvord Foundation, established by his father in 1937 to support educational endeavors. “The acoustics in the house are near-perfect,” says Alvord, who just recently enjoyed the visit of young Chinese pianist Lang Lang; he performed for a fund-raiser for Meany Hall, a 1,200-seat auditorium at the University of Washington.
On other occasions Alvord has donated a guided tour of his house to local auctions, bringing as few as three high school students and as many as 50 garden club members to see the art. Many Haverford and Bryn Mawr externs have stayed a week in the Alvord home and seem to have enjoyed the art as a break in their otherwise intense examination of a neuropathologist’s life at the medical school and in the associated hospitals. This long-term annual activity, usually held during the month of January, recently earned Alvord the William Kaye Award for exemplary service to Haverford College in career development, given to him by the Alumni Association.
Though retired, Alvord is still active as a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, teaching a course on the anatomy of the human brain at 6:30 every morning during the summer. He remians involved with research, working with an applied mathematician to determine how certain brain tumors grow and infiltrate the brain. Bur even with thhese commitments, he and Nancy find time to appreciate and add to their unique assortment of upside-dowm heads, tiny murderous women, and paintings that just cannot hang straight.