Magnificent Obsession

For Dick Jemison, his collections of tribal art are a natural extension of a lifelong search for the wonders of this world.

by Joe O’Donnell          Photography by Beau Gustafson

The loft has been stripped not quite bare. Until the crew from the Birmingham Museum of Art came to crate and move dozens of extraordinary examples of African pottery, the vessels were stacked on floor to ceiling shelving along all of the walls in this airy, open room off Morris Avenue.

For artist and collector Dick Jemison this was the evidence of his magnificent obsession, an obsession he has now shared with the museum and a multitude of visitors who will in future years marvel at the same beauty that has enamored Jemison for decades.
“I was brought up on the adventures of Tarzan,” Jemison, scion of one of Birmingham’s founding families, “searching through the jungles for the wonders of the world.”
Jemison, now in his late 60s, started that journey in a city his forbearers helped transform from a railroad crossing into a major city. That city became a wonderland for a young Jemison in the late 1960s and 1970s, a man who wanted to be an artist.
Jemison had traveled the world a bit, and settled back down in Birmingham at what he terms an extraordinary time in the city.

“In the 1970s Southside was full of bookstores, writers, poets, painters, musicians. There was Joe Bar and Gene Crutcher’s bookstore,” he says. There was also DJ’s Greenhouse, a plant store that Jemison opened in Five Points across from Five Points Hardware.
The Garage was opened by Fritz Woehle in 1972, and Jemison had a small gallery there as well as studio space off Magnolia Avenue. By the end of the 1970s, Jemison was restless for new adventures and set out to explore his art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
He was 37-years-old at the time.

When he reached New Mexico, he says the colors just exploded in his artwork. He was inspired. “I spent my time painting, getting involved in art shows at the galleries, studying Indian culture and collecting what I could afford,” Jemison says.
In Santa Fe, the collecting bug bit him hard. “It was tremendous need I had to satisfy. A passion I developed. I always tried to collect in a series. So I would collect a lot of one thing,” Jemison says. “Santa Fe had been a trading crossroads and a melting pot for centuries. There was Indian art, silver, Spanish colonial furnishings.
“One day I woke up to a tremendous number of objects that I had amassed,” Jemison says.

After time spent in Colorado and back in Birmingham, Jemison and Fritz Woehle took off for Africa to study wildflowers and architecture in the wine country of South Africa. “We saw our share of African beer pots. In galleries, I bought Zulu pottery and met gallery owners and dealers.”
Jemison was being bitten bit by the collecting bug in a whole new part of the world.

“Collecting is habit–forming. They say it is a sickness. In Africa, they’ve been making clay pottery since the beginning of time. I thought they were undervalued.”
Jemison spent the next few years buying all of the African tribal art he could find, putting the core of his collection together between 2002 and 2007. He became one of the top collectors of such pottery in the United States. “Collecting is a high. When you open a warehouse full of pots that had never been seen before, it is such a rush. The artistry and power of these pots can really teach you something,” Jemison says.

The Birmingham Museum of Art is now the repository for Jemison’s collection. “I hope they can use it as a foundation for what could be the greatest African pottery collection in the country,” Jemison says.
Jemison, has assembled an extensive collection of tribal art from around the world. “We owe a great deal to tribal art.” His African pottery collection includes hundreds of examples from many areas of the continent and is complimented by Dogon masks, recently added to the collection. Bone Daggers from New Guinea offer a look at intricate, geometric and tribal designs along with figurative imagery. A collection of Hopi Katsina (Kachina) Dolls carved by Oraibi Tribal Chief, Wilson Tawaquaptewa, represents some of the finest and most humorously carved figures in Native American culture. Collections include Mexican Nichos jewelry and Mapuche jewelry from Chile and Argentina.
“I’ve reached a point in my life when I need to simplify, and I’d like to get back to my own art work. If I get the bug again, I’ll go with it. The search is the adventure. The thrill of the search is the best part of all,” Jemison says.

Leave a Reply