A Passion for Native Art – Collectors Ron and Fran Chilcote

written by Liz Goldner
photographed by Tom Lamb

Collecting art and supporting indigenous people are nearly synonymous for Ron and Fran Chilcote. The couple have traversed our planet, living for extended periods in Brazil, Chile, Spain and Portugal. And throughout their travels, they have acquired art, artifacts and furnishings, many of them created in remote areas. Ron explains that the so-called popular art by impoverished people from these regions has always fascinated him, whether the works are paintings, carvings, ceramics or rugs. His thoughts, he says, are “always for others and their problems.”

Ron is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at UC Riverside, and his wife Fran is a photographer, editor and homemaker. Ron also helped found and still manages Latin American Perspectives, a peer-reviewed academic journal addressing issues of social, economic and political justice involving native peoples—matters that dovetail with much of the art that the couple own. He adds that his first academically oriented travels throughout Latin America, particularly to Guatemala and Chile in 1958 and to Cuba on the eve of its revolution, stimulated his interest in naïve art pieces.

Thanks to their lifetime of collecting, the Chilcote’s Laguna Beach home overflows with paintings, drawings, ceramic figures and wall hangings. While they don’t always know the names or dates of the pieces, many of them were created during the second half of the twentieth century. One of their favorites is a 6 by 10 foot oil by Francisco “Chico” da Silva from the 1960s that they rescued years ago from a demolished hotel in Fortaleza, Brazil. With its yellow background and intricate folkloric design illustrating Amazonian snakes, dragons and underwater plants, it depicts an exotic world inspired by native thoughts and dreams.

Another cherished piece is a woodblock print of a cowboy, an ox and a parrot by Brazilian artist Gilvan Samico. Ron says that the work was inspired by the covers of the hand-made pamphlets known as “literatura de cordel” that hang from strings in market stalls. The tradition of producing these booklets, which contain ballads of romance, mystery and social conflict intended to be sung by troubadours, dates back hundreds of years. Ron has acquired thousands of the pamphlets, many of which are archived at UC Riverside. Another piece bearing the stamp of this tradition is a blue-hued painting combining figurative with cubist elements by Brazilian artist Lula Cardoso Ayres from the Recife area of Brazil.

With its ocean view, Ron’s office is filled with a lifetime of mementos. On one wall he has hung colorful primitive paintings by Brazilian artists illustrating indigenous people and rural scenes. And on the office’s shelves he has created a miniature village made up of hundreds of brightly painted ceramic and wooden figures— cowboys, bandits, musicians, dancers, horses, donkeys and religious figures—from Brazil and Portugal. Ron’s mission has been dedicated to supporting marginalized peoples, and collecting their art and artifacts not only helps with the effort but also pays respect to the nobility of their lives.
Given their admiration for indigenous art, it is not surprising that the Chilcotes also collect Southwestern American works. Hanging above their dining table are two paintings by Taos-based artist Malcolm Furlow, including Rodeo, which depicts a cowboy riding a bucking bronco and employs bold strokes of bright colors suggesting motion and drama. The more subdued Bison, rendered in broad swaths of multi-colored paint, captures the lumbering quality of its majestic subject. Other Southwestern works in the Chilcotes’ collection include two vibrant paintings of coyotes created with strong assertive lines and contrasting colors by John Nieto, and an untitled painting by Nivia Gonzales of a proud native woman carrying a bowl on her head. Chieftain, a lithograph by Native American artist Fritz Scholder, demonstrates his influence on Nieto and Furlow.

There is much more in the Chilcotes’ home. Having lived in Laguna Beach since 1972, they have come to appreciate works by our renowned California Impressionists. Among their favorites is an elegant watercolor, Laguna Hideaway, by pioneer artist Norman St. Clair from about 1896. Inspired by this piece and other Laguna landscapes from a century ago, Ron has produced his own impressionistic photographs. These large prints, which he manipulates during the development stage, depict local landscapes, seascapes and even the lush greenbelt near Laguna Canyon Road. One photo of a vernal lake is a study in greens and blues, capturing the luminescent quality of flowing water.

In the couple’s living area is a 200-year-old grandfather clock from Scotland that Fran grew up with. Here also are four antique carved wooden chests from Brazil and Portugal. Fran stores old books and other rarities in them, and adorns their lids with 300-year-old floral decorated plates from Portugal. Dozens of other Portuguese plates, along with azulejo tiles from eighteenth and nineteenth century Spain and Portugal, are displayed throughout their home. A large Portuguese Arraiolos rug, exhibiting the influence of Persian art and of the Moors who invaded Portugal in the seventh century, graces their living room floor.

Ron and Fran Chilcote’s ocean-facing hillside home includes numerous other paintings, drawings, objects and furnishings from across the globe. The couple have been married now for 56 years, and their treasures reflect the life they have lived and the altruistic work they have accomplished together.

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