A Forest of Imagination
Pure instinct led Fleur Bresler to create one of the country’s foremost collections of wood art.
Fleur Bresler makes no bones about it: Collecting is her addiction, and at 88, she still loves the high. Every time she finds an art piece that calls to her—and there are plenty that do—she feels an immediate rush. “My heart flutters and I know I’ve got to have whatever that object is. If I don’t, I’m never going to forget it and I’m never going to forgive myself. It will absolutely haunt me. I still remember a quilt that got away decades ago. I can probably draw a picture of the darn thing.”
She is, by her own admission, a collecting “clutterer,” even if her alleged clutter is of a highly selective nature and displayed with a curator’s eye. Her Rockville, Md., apartment is filled to overflowing with some 1,500 works of art, ranging from tiny silver teapots to a towering fiber sculpture. But her predominant focus for the last 30 years has been turned and carved wood—a collection of 950 objects that she has been amassing ever since she stumbled across a groundbreaking exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, the crafts and decorative arts branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
On a spring afternoon in 1986, she was strolling along Pennsylvania Avenue when she got caught in a thunderstorm. By happenstance, she was just a few steps away from the Renwick, so she ducked inside. What could be a more agreeable place for an enthusiast of classic American crafts to take shelter? Since the mid-1970s she had been collecting historically significant quilts that typified indigenous styles, along with handmade duck decoys representative of a centuries-old Chesapeake Bay tradition.
While she waited out the rain, Bresler wandered upstairs to have a look at a new show, the Edward Jacobson collection of turned-wood bowls by pioneers of the fledgling, little-known medium of lathe art. And pow! There it was, the telltale heart flutter. “I was just blown away,” she says. “It was instant infatuation, an overwhelming visceral response. I had never seen wood in such an extraordinary range of colors and textures and shapes. What really drew me most intensely was the tactile quality—wood is an organic, living material, not cold to the touch like marble or glass. I had an insatiable desire to feel the bowls, to hold them in my hands, and had there not been a guard standing by, I wouldn’t have been able to resist lifting them out of their display cases. And that was it. I knew I had to own a piece.”
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