interview by NANCY GORDON
photography by SARAH BOONE
portrait photography by CINDY MASSEY

Art collector Suzanne Louise Gagnon.

At 5 years old, Puff the Magic Dragon was the start of it all. Tell us about it.

I was 5 when my mom and dad took me into an antique shop with some artwork. I saw the pen-and-ink drawing of Puff the Magic Dragon in a metal frame lined in velvet. Puff was not a child’s version, but rather a scary adult version that questioned at the bottom of the drawing, “What ever happened to Little Jackie Vapor?” I looked up and said, “I want that!” My parents bought it and had Santa give it to me that Christmas. I still have it in my collection in its original frame with the price on the back, $10.00.

Are you from Maine originally?

No. I am from Massachusetts originally, but my parents bought a cottage in Wells on Drakes Island in 1967, when I was 5, so I have always felt at home crossing the bridge into Maine!

Have you always been an art enthusiast?

You can say I have always been interested in art and art history.

Who was the greatest supporter of your love of art?

Definitely my mother! She would take me to museums, galleries and antique auctions.

You and your mom traveled the world together to look at art. What do you remember most?

In terms of specific trips, it would have to be either the trip to the south of France—which was organized by the docent group at the Portland Museum of Art, where I was a docent for a period of time—or the Italian trip that went from Venice to Florence to Rome. Both of those were with a curator from the Getty Museum. We learned so much about the art we saw in small museums and churches.

When did you begin collecting art and referring to yourself as an art collector?

I feel like the first phase was collecting my favorite paintings in the form of postcards from museums. I would spread them out on the floor and create a little show. The serious collecting began in the mid-’80s, when I started to earn more money and I could have a budget for collecting.

It was 1991 when I had my epiphany that I should be in the art world working in a gallery, and maybe have a gallery of my own. It took years of travel and teaching myself art history to finally start working in a great gallery, the O’Farrell Gallery, in 1999. It then took another gallery director’s job and eight more years to finally open my own gallery, the Cooper Jackson Gallery on India Street in Portland.

What drives/inspires you to collect?

There is a moment when I feel a painting get under my skin and I can see it in my collection. I love bringing work together and discovering new things about paintings over time. So the experience of a piece is expanded and deepened when you get to live with it. I also love supporting artists, young and established.

It is all part of the life cycle of creation. If you don’t have collectors you lose so much of art history. Art is an important part of a healthy civilization.

You mentioned that being a collector is about “intent.” Can you elaborate, please?

Collecting goes beyond just filling your walls with paintings. It is intentionally building something that works together. I have areas I look for, whether it is a particular artist that I buy multiple pieces from or a particular motif, like abstraction or figurative or animals.

As a painting is resolved, are your collections resolved? Why does one collection stop and another start?

I think I am always focused on my next discovery. It is exciting, even when it is by an artist whose work I may already own. I also grow and my tastes change. I relate it to listening to music: I like to listen to new music rather than go back to listen to what is already familiar. The same is true with starting and moving on from areas I have collected. I don’t buy landscapes anymore. I prefer more challenging work that really makes you wonder, ‘What is going on?’ Paintings with mystery in the image and its meaning have tremendous lasting power for me.

You worked at The Clown in Portland, 2004–07. How did that inform your collecting?

I had free rein to build a stable of artists to represent. Portland had a beautiful gallery space so I could be creative in the shows I put on.

You mentioned your gallery, the Cooper Jackson Gallery on India Street in Portland, which you opened in May 2007 and closed one year later. What do you miss most about it?

I really miss three things. First is finding and working with artists and giving them feedback on the work to help them grow and find their deepest work. Second, I miss curating shows that involve going to the artist’s studio and picking out the work. Then I put it together to hang in such a way that it helps the viewers learn about the work and the artist and how everything communicates with each other.

The last thing I miss is selling art. It was such a thrill to help facilitate people connecting with a piece of art that speaks to them. I love helping to break down barriers between their fears and what people instinctively like. Having the knowledge of the artist—where the artist may be coming from in subject and location—I was able to encourage people to trust themselves and open up to paintings as they learned more.

As a gallery owner, how did you choose which artists to show and represent?

It was a variety of sources. Going to small, offbeat shows where young artists are starting out after art school. I also talked to collectors about who was exciting to them. Artists would also approach me, because I was a gallery director.

Do you collect mostly Maine artists?

Deborah Randall, Everyone Knows It's Windy,
48 x 48 inches, oil on wood

I have mostly Maine artists and a few other parts of the country. I have collected quite a few paintings by Deborah Randall who painted the one with the big round balls over what looks to be rabbit ears and, at the bottom, bird’s legs. This is a good example of the kind of mystery I love in paintings. You look at this large 48- x 48-inch painted space, titled Everyone Knows It’s Windy, and have to wonder what is going on behind the balls of color. Who are the rabbit and bird and where did they go? It is visually beautiful and full of layers that communicate the mystery to me.

Richard Garrigus, Untitled, 41 x 52 inches, oil on canvas

Richard Garrigus, Untitled
32 x 48 inches, oil on wood

Richard Garrigus, August Field and a Parting Sky
48 x 72 inches, oil on canvas

Another artist I collect and love is the abstract expressionist painter Richard Garrigus. Richard has been painting abstract expressionist work for many years. I have the biggest collection of his large paintings. His grand painting August Field and a Parting Sky pushes landscape completely into the abstract, creating more of a visual poem than a landscape image.

Do your collections represent a mix of men and women artists?

I do have a mix of men and women. I don’t look for either sex; it is all about the work.

From left of bed:
Maia Snow, Untitled, 23 x 23 inches, oil on canvas

Right of bed: 
Jimmy Viera, Routine, 19 x 19 inches, acrylic on panel
Left of French doors: 
Ann Buckwalter, Untitled, 11 x 14 inches, gouache on panel
Right of French doors: 
Eva Goetz, Untitled, 19 x 19 inches, acrylic on paper
Around the corner:  
Hermes scarf of Sarasvati

To you personally, what is the most important aspect of your collections?

I think it is the personal stories that go along with all of them.

You also collect pottery, which plays into your college studies of classical archeology. Tell us about the Etruscan dig you went on.

It was an amazing experience. I lived and learned about all the aspects of a dig in Vescovado di Murlo, Italy. This was a small town of about 320 people in 1984. We were excavating terra-cotta sculptural pieces dating to approximately 600 BC. We were digging up a workshop where the Etruscans made roof tiles. We even had a tile that they had walked or run over, leaving footprints in tiles!

How did you match dig pieces with their pots?

I worked at long tables of shards from different pots and other objects. It was hard to identify the matching pieces from sight, so I used a tactile approach and felt pots for the unique feelings of the clay… most often with my eyes closed.

Was this matching approach unusual?

I am not sure if it was unusual, but it worked well for me.

What is your most recent art—painting or pottery—acquisition?

Eva Goetz, Bhakti, 32 x 40 inches, acrylic on paper with mixed media

I have a piece by Maine artist Eva Goetz. I love her work. This new piece is titled Bhakti, meaning devotion. It is a large piece with two figures sharing a spiritual life between them. Eva’s work draws on Latin American shamanism and folk art to create beautiful stories in her paintings.

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