Local art collectors reflect on their growing collection

COLLECTORS: When Randy Shull and Hedy Fischer met in 1993, the pair had no intentions of becoming art collectors. But over the last 20 years, the couple have amassed an extraordinary collection of some of today's most visible artists. Photo by Jennifer Castillo

Mirror, Mirror, an exhibition on self-reflection, opens in Asheville on Thursday, April 28. Given the collection’s breadth — 24 works by contemporary artists from 17 states and nine foreign countries — you might expect to see it in a museum or at least a commercial gallery. Instead, the show takes place at local artist Randy Shull’s studio, 22 London, a former warehouse in South Asheville.

Making Mirror, Mirror even more unusual, the works are not on loan from museums or galleries. Shull and his life and business partner, Hedy Fischer, own the collection — one that has caught the eye and praise of local and statewide art leaders.

Linda Johnson Dougherty, the chief curator at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, calls it “one of the most significant collections of contemporary art in the state.”

Meanwhile, Pamela L. Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum, praises Shull and Fischer for their astute eye. “They have a  clear and energetic focus, and that’s the hallmark of a great collection,” she says.

Despite owning some 250 works by many of today’s most visible artists, the couple say they did not set out to become collectors. And while they remain dedicated to sharing their acquisitions with Asheville and beyond, the pair are also considering the future destination for their growing collection.

Almost by accident

According to Shull, both collecting and exhibiting began almost by accident.

“As an artist, I traded a lot  with my friends,” he explains. “I had a significant art collection from my friends in New York and Philadelphia. Then when Hedy and I got together [in 1993], we were able to pool our funds and buy more significant pieces.”

“That opened up a whole new door of opportunity,” Fischer adds.

Fischer arrived in Asheville in 1978 to work for the Buncombe County Health Department. “From my career in public health, I segued into performance art and traveled around the world with Poetry Alive! for five years,” she says.

Shull, on the other hand, came to Western North Carolina in 1987 for a five-year residency at Penland School of Craft. By that point, he was only a few years out from earning his bachelor of fine arts degree in furniture design from the Rochester Institute of Technology. His handmade, one-of-a-kind polychromed wood pieces were already attracting collectors and earning praise from critics.

“Asheville was my place to go on a date,” Shull remembers. “The big draw was to go to Malaprop’s to look at books and to buy alcohol [downtown]. Penland School was devoid of those things.”

As Shull and Fischer began traveling internationally together, they always visited museums and galleries. When they saw artists they liked, they began to buy their works “one piece at a time,” Shull says. “I don’t think we thought of ourselves as collectors for 20 years. We were just buying art that we loved. Then you realize your art-buying has a focus, and all of sudden you’ve got a collection.”

In our time

That focus, says Fischer, leans toward works with social and political consciousness. “The majority of the artists we collect are Latinx or African diaspora,” she notes.

NEUROTICISM: Among the works to be featured in Mirror, Mirror, is Tryon-based artist Margaret Curtis’ “Portrait of My Anxiety (Wallpaper).” The painting, the artists notes, “is about a certain level of neuroticism.”

Shull adds, “We buy work if we feel the artist has something to say about the times we live in.”

To date, a sense of immediacy has pervaded the five exhibitions they have hosted. For example, in 2017, ¡Viva! showcased more than a dozen Latin American artists as controversy flared about immigration. Three years later, High Anxiety was developed as the pandemic was taking hold.

Similar to their overall collection, the idea to host exhibitions was fortuitous, as well. When Shull bought the warehouse at 22 London Road in 2013, “It was just going to be my studio,” he says, “And it still is.”

But when two friends — David J. Brown, a museum curator in West Virginia, and David Raymond, an artist, filmmaker and collector of photography who moved to Asheville from Manhattan in 2012 — visited the space, they persuaded Shull and Fischer to create their first show: Love, Devotion and Surrender.

Though the turnout was small in 2016, “It was enthusiastic enough that we were encouraged to do more,” says Fischer. “We saw a hunger for contemporary art [displayed] in a contemplative environment that was not commercial.”

Mirror, Mirror

In their collectors’ statement for the upcoming exhibit, Shull and Fischer write: “Self-portraits have been made since we first glimpsed our reflections in water, but it was not until the mid-15th century, when the mirror was made from more reflective silvered glass, that artists can be frequently identified depicting themselves as either the primary subject or as an important character in their painting.”

Tying this theme of self-reflection to the present day, Mirror, Mirror examines the pandemic and the self-searching it’s generated for many throughout the extended periods of social isolation.

One of the questions Mirror, Mirror raises is, “What can we learn from how artists have portrayed themselves?”

Though not all featured works were created amid the health crisis, some were a direct reaction to it. For example, New York-based artist Kevin Beasley’s sculpture “Recliner,” shows the artist reclined in a chair, draped in a bedsheet, appearing as a solidified ghost. The work came about after missing a family reunion in his home state of Virginia in the early days of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Tryon-based artist Margaret Curtis tackles her response to contemporary cataclysms with “Portrait of My Anxiety (Wallpaper).” A woman sitting tensely in a hard wooden chair is knitting furiously. Knots and tentacles of yarn envelop her head, torso, arms and legs. Behind her, elaborately patterned wallpaper is disintegrating in flames.

Curtis says she was driving down the road “when the image popped into my head fully formed of a woman completely covered in knots. I could see it so clearly.” The painting, she admits, “is about a certain level of neuroticism.”

Promised gift

Shull and Fischer clearly get a kick out of collecting and sharing their art.

“It’s fun to think about what we’ll show next, based on the things we have,” Shull says. “And just knowing we have the space.”

But the pair will also purchase future works with themes in mind, Fischer adds, once they’ve settled on the next exhibit.

Looking toward the future, the couple are also currently in conversation with the N.C. Museum of Art about donating a major portion as a legacy.

Dougherty, the N.C. Museum of Art curator, says this gift will transform the museum’s collection.

“Randy and Hedy have made a concerted effort to think about artists who have been overlooked,” Dougherty says. “Having these works will allow us to present a more inclusive and more accurate view of art history.”

WHAT: Mirror, Mirror 

WHERE: 22 London studio, 22 London Road, avl.mx/bho

WHEN: Thursday, April 28 – Saturday, May 28


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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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