An Artful Life
By Rose Fredrick
Serendipity. It’s that crazy unknown of collecting that adds an extra thrill to finding the perfect work of art. It’s discovering a Ming dynasty vase on your grandmother’s windowsill or a John Singer Sargent painting at a neighborhood yard sale. Of course, finds like these are rare, but for Colorado Springs, CO, collectors Rich Schell and Greg Wragge, fate seems to point its fickle finger toward them more than most.
“I found this painting at an antiques market in Atlanta,” says Schell, standing in front of an exquisite oil portrait that looks to be by a student of the great Ashcan School artist Robert Henri. “I had my friend stand guard over it while I went to check on the price. All the way to the front desk I made deals in my mind of what I would and wouldn’t pay for it, what my limit was.” When he heard the price was just a third of his limit, he was overjoyed, and not just because of the great deal. “I love it for how it affects me emotionally,” Schell says. “I just adore it.”
It helps that Schell and Wragge own a hybrid art gallery/floral business, Rich Designs Home, as well as a high-end consignment store, I Saw It First, where a constant flow of antiques and art passes in front of their discerning eyes. “We definitely take advantage of opportunities that come our way,” comments Schell as he surveys the couple’s sizable collection, then adds, “I think we make great finds because we’re always on the hunt and willing to take chances.”
From frequenting favorite antiques shops across the country to picking through estate sales closer to home, the two have carefully pieced together an impressive collection that includes historic and contemporary paintings and sculpture, as well as unique objects such as war bride sewing baskets and French glass and crystal. Along the way they have discovered new artists and helped catapult their careers. A favorite of theirs is local artist Christopher Owen Nelson, who was working in a custom frame shop they do business with. They bought a large, abstractly painted Plexiglas piece by Nelson and proceeded to tell friends and clients about the young talent. Their word-of-mouth campaign worked so well that Nelson was able to leave framing behind and concentrate on his own work full time. “I could see success in his work,” says Schell. “I wanted to make it happen for him.”
Both Schell and Wragge hail from Wyoming, and though neither came from families that collected art, they each had a penchant for the arts, particularly music. Wragge, a tenor, was a voice and art major in college, and Schell, a bass/baritone, earned extra cash in high school by singing at a local funeral parlor. Schell’s main focus, however, was floral design, which he began learning at age 13 while working for a local florist. Eventually, that skill was his ticket to a change of scenery and a job with his uncle’s floral business in Colorado Springs. “There was nothing happening for us in Wyoming at that time,” says Wragge. “This was a great opportunity; we had a destination.”
Other opportunities were to follow and, true to form, Schell and Wragge were ready to accept what life offered. “Opening Rich Designs was done on a dare,” recalls Schell. “I was working as a floral designer for the Broadmoor Hotel, and I thought, ‘I can do this better myself.’” That sentiment combined with a sweetheart deal from a landlord, and soon enough Schell and Wragge had opened their own business and were expanding and hiring help. Eventually they relocated the floral business and art gallery—The Gallery at Rich Designs—to a larger site. They kept the original location for their consignment shop.
Closer to home, their thoughts about art are more personal. They think of their living space as a place to cocoon and believe that art nurtures the soul. This is why they have to love each piece they place in their home. To that end, they search for artwork that touches them on a gut level. Over the 24 years they have lived in Colorado Springs, their tastes have grown and evolved, partly from exposure to new and different artists, but also as a byproduct of their chosen careers. “I think we’re becoming more and more contemporary in our tastes,” says Schell, “though I still love the old European antique pieces that feather
As designers of everything from flowers to interiors, they naturally ply their trade at home and have effortlessly blended paintings from numerous eras. For example, a classic early 1900s Hungarian painting hangs near a non-objective oil by contemporary artist Gwen Fox, both of which are situated near a Jason Wheatley painting of chickens titled PEERING INTO A PAINTER’S CAN, which was a present to Schell for his 40th birthday. Interspersed amid these diverse yet harmonious works are seemingly random groupings of objects and antiques, little discoveries scattered about.
Their home, a 1969 contemporary design (think The Brady Bunch), sits on the edge of a historic neighborhood not far from Colorado College and is quite unusual for the area. When they first saw it, they were appalled by its esthetics. But Schell and Wragge had previously bought lackluster houses and turned them into showpieces, and this house presented a new challenge. They updated the house, taking out walls here and there, sealing up others, adding plantation shutters, and painting the oppressive dark woodwork an off-white, the only white in the place. “The house offered a lot of wall space,” says Wragge of the 5,000-square-foot structure. “We knew this would be a great place to showcase our art, and we’ve definitely been able to expand the collection.”
The house’s unique design includes a sheltered courtyard, created by the original owner to be a meditation area, complete with a fountain commissioned from noted Colorado sculptor Don Green as its focal point. Wragge and Schell immediately fell for the exterior living space and this lyrical work of art, which, they made certain, was written into the contract to stay on the premises.
Filled with lush gardens, their half-acre of land creates an elegant backdrop for other sculptural works, like the carved wooden door by another Colorado artist, Mary Chenoweth, who passed away in 1999. The door was originally commissioned by a former mayor of Colorado Springs for his home, but when the house sold, the door wound up in Schell and Wragge’s consignment shop. They didn’t snap it up right away, but after examining the depth of detail and creativity, they knew they had to have it and knew just where to place it: the entrance to their gardens.
Schell and Wragge say they are not focused solely on regional artists, though their collection does offer fine examples of work by contemporary Colorado artists Chuck Mardosz, Ann Dettmer, Ken Valastro, Kim English, and others whose paintings and sculptures figure prominently in their home. Their methodology is, well, a bit looser. “We tend to fly by the seat of our pants,” explains Schell. “How we view artists is based on a gut reaction to who that person is. We have to like them as people almost before we like their work.”
Collecting, they have found, is contagious. “We have taken great pride in connecting people with fine art and helping them to realize the difference between what real art looks like versus a bunch of prints that you had in college,” says Schell. With plenty of room inside and out to entertain, the couple enjoys offering up their home for fundraising events for such groups as the Performing Arts for Youth Organization and the Colorado Springs Children’s Chorale, and in their business they annually host a fundraiser for Pikes Peak Hospice. In addition to supporting causes dear to their hearts, these events allow them to turn people on to art.
When asked how often they reorganize or make a significant change to their surroundings, Schell responds, “We probably move things somewhere, somehow, a couple times a year. As designers, we love change.”