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Mexico, Miami, Bellefonte, PA: An Interview with Centre County Artist and Collector, Stephen Althouse

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ADDRESS
133 North Allegheny Street Bellefonte, Pa 16823

PHONE
814-355-4280

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By Serge Bielanko

Once again, the folks over at the Bellefonte Art Museum (BAM) are kicking off a new year with double dose of culture and soul. Year after year, month after month, they've been bringing world-class art, much of it from right here in our own hills and valleys, to you and me and and anyone else in this county who might want to venture down some new, eclectic path we haven't traveled down much before.

This month, a new decade unfurls with a fresh exhibit in the First Floor Gallery. Ritual Masks and Figures of Mexico from the Althouse Collection is much more than it even sounds in title. Yeah sure, there are more than a couple of majestic creations here that will blow your mind at first glance. But beyond all of that tangible art, all of the paint and clay and paper, beyond all of that stuff lies something more, you see. As is often the case with the art that stays with us the most: there are many layers to this particular onion, friends.

There is a story here, it turns out, way beyond the one we might pick up on here merely with our eyes.

And Stephen Althouse, and his wife, Jody,  are the subtle storytellers of that tale. Stephen, a renown artist in his own right, was raised by parents who looked at the world a little bit differently than your average 1950's suburban cul-de-sacians. So much so, in fact, that once upon a time, Thomas and Charlotte Althouse of Bucks County, Pennsylvania looked at their two young school-aged children, Stephen and his sister, Christine, then looked at each other and then looked south.

As in south of the border. And not the one in South Carolina.

Whimsically, perhaps inspired by the first whiffs of the imminent societal and cultural changes that the world would experience in the decade to come, the Althouse clan packed their things and moved their nuclear family south to Mexico.

What transpired then is memoir-worthy, especially when you listen to Stephen himself recollect how the next year of his life spent assimilating himself deeply into the rich Mexican culture changed him- and dare I say, inspired him forever.

While attending a Mexican school with the area kids and learning to communicate in Spanish, Stephen's parents fell madly in love with the local art scene where they were. Soon they began collecting the works of the Mexican artists who were working in their midst, eventually amassing a collection of museum-worthy proportions. Their son and daughter followed in the parents footsteps as well, and ever since that year abroad, the brother and sister both independently and collectively immersed themselves in a life of creating art, collecting it, and curating the collection that their mom and dad had so passionately established.

Now, the elder Althouse folks are gone, as is Christine, leaving Stephen and his wife to carry on the collection and its legacy. On display now at Bellefonte Art Museum, 133 North Allegheny Street, the masks especially in this show unearth a story as old as the dry cracked Earth of Old Mexico herself. Pre-dating the Spanish arriving in the 16th century, and carrying right on through the coming centuries, the faces staring back at you when you glare at any of these works have lived through so damn much.

From the Aztecs to the Moors, from the Catholics to the Cartels, Mexico's story is one of enchantment, violence, family, and history, and it's a story worth knowing.

As is the tale behind the tale here, the story of those Althouse kids first trip down to Mexico, and the subsequent years of art and life that have brought Stephen and Jody Althouse across the globe only to ultimately settle here in Centre County, Pennsylvania. Your neighbors, so to speak, if you will.

Now the Althouse's are sharing some of the highlights of their collection with all of us with this Ritual Masks and Figures of Mexico exhibit expertly curated by museum Deputy Director, Lori Fisher.

I reached out to Stephen Althouse to ask him about his original year in Mexico, what that meant to him, and how art matters in this world.

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Bellefonte.com: Your parents took your sister and you to live in Mexico when you were just kids. That was where they discovered (and began collecting) Mexican folk art. Looking back, how influential was that year in your life? And why?

Stephen Althouse: Being raised in rural Bucks County, PA during the ‘50s was a wonderful experience, however there was relatively little cultural and racial diversity. So living in Mexico, going to school there, and having an after-school job was a totally unique experience which has greatly influenced my life. In addition to acquiring a solid foundation in the Spanish language, I was exposed to Mexican and various indigenous cultures, as well as making friends with Mexican classmates and neighbors. Being from the US and of northern European decent I was in the cultural and racial minority. I spoke with a foreign accent, and came from a country which had forcibly taken almost half of Mexico’s land in the past; however I never felt prejudices against me or my family.

I believe that experiencing first-hand demonstrations of tolerance and acceptance of differences has hopefully nurtured similar attributes within me. I developed an appreciation for diversity in people and cultures, as well as a lifelong interest in learning and experiencing more about the human species. Indicators of this influence may be noted by my later living and working abroad in South America and Europe while making my base residence in culturally diverse Miami for many years. After returning to Pennsylvania I’ve been immersing myself in the unique culture of my Amish friends and neighbors, and I continue to travel.

Do you think it is a good idea for parents to at least attempt to introduce their children to art at a young age? Or do you think it's best for kids to find it on their own?

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends upon the manner in which one introduces art to a child. If a parent or teacher uses judgmental introductions to art by implying that “this art is better than that art”, or by always saying that certain types of art are “beautiful” the child will gradually develop very limiting and narrow preconceptions about art. In this case I believe that it would be beneficial for the child to discover art on their own without parental involvement. However, if the learning atmosphere is non-opiniated and parents or teachers are able to introduce a child to art in an openminded non-judgmental manner, it may help accelerate the child’s development of their personal aesthetics and creative ideas.

How big is the Althouse Collection today?

The Althouse collection consists of almost 300 antique masks and objects from South America, North America, Africa, and Asia with about two thirds being from Mexico. We’re in the process of systematically digitally documenting and inventorying the collection and just finished the Mexican part of the collection prior to the exhibition at the Bellefonte Art Museum.

You've had the very unique opportunity to continue tending to- and adding to- the Mexican art collection that your parents began. How has it affected your life, being able to carry on that contribution they started?

My approach to collecting is much different than that of my parents, who were very focused collectors. They would travel to Mexico for the sole purpose of adding to the collection and were thrilled in the discovery of new pieces, which ultimately were displayed on the walls of our home back in the US. It was a fascinating situation in which to grow up and it fueled my imagination. However, when I began to travel abroad on my own, starting during my late teens, it was not for the purpose of seeking out unique objects for the collection, but rather to seek out unique experiences.

My wife shares my passion for travel and together we’ve returned to Mexico as well as added South America, Northern Africa and Europe to our travels and residencies; each time finding ourselves in unique situations, having adventures, meeting new interesting people, and learning about diversity of humankind as well as the universal attributes and contradictions of our species. Although collecting has not been the purpose of our journeys, when the occasion arises we continue to add antique masks, ethnic jewelry, and religious artifacts to the collection. Just as the Althouse Collection is growing and evolving, so has the accumulation of my lifelong experiences, travels, and reflections on humanity which I use as the raw material for the creation of my personal artwork.

What pieces/ themes will the Bellefonte Art Museum Althouse Exhibit feature? Did you work with the museum in choosing what would be included?

The curating, design, and organization of the exhibition and the selection of the approximately 60 pieces being displayed were all done by Lori Fisher, the museum’s Deputy Director. Her selection represents about a third of the antique Mexican ritual masks and figures from our collection.  Most of the exhibition features carved and painted wooden masks of animal, human, and fantasy faces from different regions of Mexico, the majority being from the state of Guerrero which has a reputation in Mexico for its mask making. 

Some of the pieces in the exhibition are primitively carved and painted while others demonstrate sophisticated carving skills.

A few of the works are primitive religious figures depicting saints.  Most of the objects in the exhibition were used in ritual dances and public spectacles which combine ancient indigenous practices with the introduction of Catholicism after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec civilization.

After living in Miami, how did you and your wife end up here in Centre County?

We both enjoyed the energy, culture, and diversity of cosmopolitan Miami and its closeness and ease of travel to Mexico, South America, and the Bahamas. However, we began to question whether or not a major metropolitan city is an appropriate environment to raise our children.  An opportunity arose and we moved briefly to Europe, living in a small quaint Belgian town surrounded by farmlands where our children could walk to a French speaking school each day. We realized that the feel of this type of environment seemed to be beneficial for our family.  So, after returning to metropolitan Miami we decided to relocate to rural Pennsylvania, to an environment similar to that of my childhood and to our town in Belgium.

Do you think Centre County is a good place for artists and art? Why?

This is a difficult question to answer because I believe that artists who create uniquely distinctive art are usually individuals with differing needs for creative stimulus. Some may thrive -or not thrive- in various types of environments and gain inspiration and ideas differently. I think that many artists working in a predominantly rural area will generally have to internally seek inventive ideas and inspiration within themselves, not having as much access to the variety of external catalysts and ideas which may be found in larger cosmopolitan areas.

Last question. You are a successful artist in your own right. How has creating art shaped your life?

Actually it’s the reverse for me; it’s been my life that has shaped my art. As a contemporary artist I’m attempting to create imagery that has never before existed, while at the same time satisfying the need to express myself. Acknowledging that most people’s lives are different and unique, I metaphorically and symbolically use my life and thoughts as the subject matter for my art, anticipating that the resulting pieces will also be different and unique. I tap into a mélange of personal experiences, people, and places as catalysts and inspiration for my ideas, and I’m hoping that the uniqueness of my life will be manifested in my artwork.

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Ritual Masks and Figures of Mexico from the Althouse Collection
Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County
Special Exhibitions Gallery, First Floor
December 30 - February 23.  Friday, Saturday & Sunday 12:00-4:30
Bellefontemuseum.com, 814-355-4280

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While at your visit to BAM, head up to the 3rd floor to witness Underground Railroad: A Journey to Freedom exhibit. That permanent feature highlights the escaped slaves who sought safe passage to freedom in the north via a secret network of people who wanted to help abolish slavery altogether.

*This exhibition is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency fund-ed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

The Bellefonte Art Museum is supported by the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. Learn more about the HVAB by visiting www.visitpennstate.org.

 

 

 

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