The City Magazine Since 1975

Character Study

Character Study
May 2013
For art connoisseurs and longtime collectors Michelle Van Parys and Mark Sloan, true style sets in through time and travel

One of the first things Mark Sloan will mention about the Hampton Park bungalow that he shares with his wife, Michelle Van Parys, is their varied collection of Navajo weavings. The intricate patterns stretch across floors and hang like tapestry along walls, while still others stack several high in trunks upstairs—it isn’t a hobby, but rather, a vivid extension of the pair’s artful and well-traveled history.

“In the mid 1980s through the mid ’90s, we were what you might call ‘migrant art workers,’” explains Mark, well-known locally for his near 20-year directorship of the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art; Michelle is a professor in the College’s Studio Art department and heads the photography and digital imaging area.

There’s a hint of Mark’s trademark wry humor as he details their time in the Southwest, which was partly spent snapping images for Michelle’s photographic anthology, The Way Out West: Desert Landscapes (University of Chicago Press).

“Ultimately, we were adopted by Navajos in Chilchinbito, which is a village in Arizona known for its weaving tradition,” he says. “The RedMustache family took us in, gave us Navajo names, and made us part of their family. These blankets reflect that time in our lives.”

These and other powerful snapshots pepper the 1920s Craftsman house, shaping a domestic narrative of the couple’s paths and discoveries, not to mention their wit: even the funky robot collection standing guard in the northwest corner of the sunroom and bottle openers in the shape of a parrot, a naked ingénue, a monkey bellhop, and Mannekin Pis have a provenance. “There’s nothing more sterile to us than an IKEA bookshelf,” says Mark. “We need character. Pieces with stories—a past—that allow your mind to transport itself, like time travel.”

And why not? Particularly when your journey is as artistically notable as theirs. Following life with the Indians came a further migration West, where Mark became the associate director of fine-art photography gallery San Francisco Camerawork. “We lived in a two-room apartment just up the hill from a salsa club in the Mission District,” recalls Mark. “At night, we could hear the music of Tito Puente and Roy Barretto drifting in the open windows with the fog.”

After that, the pair headed back East when Michelle accepted a tenure track teaching position and, later, Mark accepted a directorship of the Roland Gibson Gallery, both at the State University of New York, Potsdam—a far cry from salsa Saturdays, home became a rural five-bedroom farmhouse with the ruins of an old mill in the backyard. “There was an auction house right down the street that sold off a different estate each weekend,” adds Mark. “That’s where we collected most of the furniture we brought with us here.”

In 1994, guided by Mark’s then-new stewardship of the Halsey, their next move brought them to a quiet street near the park, just north of the city’s center, and a broad-porched bungalow to settle into with their daughter, Mara (now 27); son, Andre (20); and storied collections.

Structurally, the house was sound. “It had great bones, it just needed cosmetic work,” Michelle explains. So during their off hours, the pair redid every surface—floors, walls, and ceilings—and joined the kitchen and adjacent family room into a larger, more comfortable space.

“The lone bathroom, though, was the size of a postage stamp. We don’t call it ‘tiny,’” laughs Mark. “We call it ‘original.’”

The family made do with the close quarters for six years, then in 2000, extended the back of the house to accommodate a sizeable second bathroom and a bright sunroom. Last came a long-awaited kitchen update; local outfit JMO Woodworks collaborated with Michelle and Mark to replace old tile countertops with wood and change out the cabinetry and floors. Green ceramic backsplash tiles, ruby red glass knobs, and a pair of schoolhouse-style pendants brighten the newly streamlined cookspace.

And they added a “new” sink, too. “Michelle found this old cast-iron sink in a friend’s backyard,” Mark says. “Believe me, it weighs tons, but we were happy to repurpose it.”

Impromptu finds like this, along with family heirlooms and varied works of mostly contemporary art, have always had a place here. Take the seating, for instance, which includes a Parsons bench, a leather sling chair, and a low-slung modernist green upholstered piece. “We jokingly refer to this as our ‘early massive collection,’” Mark laughs. “Our criteria seem to be big, clunky, and uncomfortable. But these items are our design tradition. Michelle found the sling chair on Father’s Day in San Francisco at a secondhand shop; I picked up the green chair on one of my walkabouts. They are reflections of where we’ve been.”

Going back further is an Art Deco grandfather clock in the living room hailing from Michelle’s childhood years as an “Army brat.” “My parents collected clocks, mostly because they were small enough to easily move with them,” she says. “This one is much larger, though, and from Paris, France. They passed it to me when I got my first apartment.” In the master bedroom is a Hamilton chest of drawers that has made its way through Mark’s family. “It’s stamped ‘1858’ for the year it arrived in Lumberton, North Carolina, on a train from Philadelphia. My mother’s side of the family is from Scotland Neck, a small town near Lumberton,” he says. “I think someone ordered this from a catalog and had it delivered.”

Gracing mantels and walls, sills and shelves are more stories: artist Richard McMahan’s miniature replicas of masterpieces (think Salvador Dali’s From the Labyrinth and John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X); an extensive collection of folk art by the likes of Howard Finster, Butch Anthony, Clyde Jones, St. Eom, and Georgia Blizzard; photographic pieces by San Francisco’s Linda Connor, Mark Klett, Jerry Uelsmann, and Maggie Taylor; and a painting by native South Carolinian Brian Rutenberg. “Particularly with photography, we have a lot of friends with whom we trade work,” says Mark.

There’s a curious lineup of Zuni fetishes above the fireplace in the living room, archaeological and insect-assisted portraits of Michelle and Mark by Joe Walters hanging in the window of the back bathroom, and in the master bedroom, a traditional “doctor lady” from China made of bone, probably from the 19th century.

“Asian women were traditionally very modest, so when doctors would make house calls, they’d bring this nude female sculpture and ask the patient to point out places on the body where they hurt,” explains Mark. “This way, they could begin to narrow down their illnesses without asking them to completely disrobe.”

Glimpses like this, into culture and creativity, line up wall to wall, each shaping a collective look into Michelle and Mark’s own ethos—their run-ins with other artists, the zig-zagging paths of their travels, the curiosities that speak volumes about their collectors. “We believe in wearing our barnacles proudly on the outside—they show history, patterns, evidence of time’s passage, and we like that.”

Curb your curiosities?
Not a chance... Michelle Van Parys and Mark Sloan offer a glimpse into life as collectors

Why collect? “Noted 20th-century collector Arthur Sackler famously said, ’Collecting is an infection which is more intractable than any virus and from which there is no inoculation and no immunity.’ For us, the objects and images here are a living museum of places we have been and people we have known. This encourages the mind to wander, which makes for a great refuge.“

How do you find these items? “Almost all of the art in our home is by artists we have developed relationships with. You might say the furniture and curiosities have more or less found their way to us. When we see something, we often know right away that it belongs in our collection.“

Where does price figure into the must-havediscoveries? “We have become very good at haggling.“

And your collection, it continues to evolve? “We like incorporating new items into the swirl of what’s already there. You know you have a problem with
collecting when there is no wall space left, and when any new acquisition requires taking something else down.  Perhaps there is medicine for this condition, but if so, we prefer to suffer.“

Ellen McGauley is Charleston’s home editor. She scouts digs from Awendaw down to Edisto, reports on market trends, and lives in a single house downtown.