How a Nashville couple found more than they were expecting when they began their journey into the visual arts

by Sara Lee Burd | Photography by Jerry Atnip

Susan and John Hainsworth

Collectors’ homes reveal volumes about the people who live there. Susan and John Hainsworth are avid collectors who prioritize surrounding themselves with the finer side of life. Walls covered with original works of art, a library and sitting areas filled with thoughtfully placed books, along with an impressive wine cellar nod to the Hainsworths’ respect for skilled, creative, intelligent accomplishment.

Joseph Vorst, Weighing Cotton, Oil on board, 48” x 46”

Building an art collection has been a journey the couple values. Together they’ve learned to work with dealers, galleries, and auction houses to acquire works that spark their interest. Locally they consult Williams Gallery where they find that Jim Williams’s extensive knowledge and collection of early American art feeds their need for learning, browsing, and buying. To stay informed and help guide his decisions, John reads about the history of art and the goings-on in the art market while Susan finds that she follows her taste and gut feeling. Ultimately however, what takes them from liking a work to taking it home with them is a mutual decision. As John says, “Either one of us has veto power,” which means they both love everything in their home and can share a story about why they decided to acquire it.

Robert Henri, Isadora Duncan, 1915, Watercolor, 12” x 8”

Their common interest in art has brought a great amount of fun to their marriage. Even as newlyweds, they enjoyed traveling and going to museums in new cities, but they have developed a great appreciation for the act of buying art. Susan says about the beginnings of their journey, “When we got married we would have bought a painting rather than a piece of furniture . . . or just about anything else.” The first big splurge the couple made was moving from purchasing prints to oil paintings. They made that leap with two small Sherrie McGraw oil-on-canvas works they purchased in Santa Fe, followed by Ed Mell’s Monument Storm. The appeal of meeting contemporary artists and discussing the art-making process fascinated them, but after buying a few more contemporary works, they switched to buying historical art.

Now, the majority of the works in their collection are mid nineteenth- through mid twentieth-century American Art, primarily from the Hudson River School through the Regionalists. The art on their walls tends toward figures and landscapes, partially because these are the predominant subjects of the period of art they collect, but the collection is hardly monotonous.

Ed Mell, Monument Storm, 2010, Oil on linen, 30” x 40”

They enjoy the hunt for weighty names like quintessential American artists Robert Henri and Everett Shinn, seminal painters from the Ashcan School and The Eight known for documenting both the impoverished and cosmopolitan lifestyles of 1900s New York City. Henri’s Isadora Duncan features the famed Modern dancer dramatically poised, semi-nude, and rendered with loose brushstrokes in watercolor, evoking the ephemeral beauty expressed by her body movement. Shinn’s Dancers on Stage recalls the delight of spectacle at the theatre both on and off the stage by featuring a glimpse of the elegantly dressed audience gazing at the animated performers and also around the room.

Thomas Hart Benton, Lord Heal the Child, Oil on canvas, 12” x 17”

Displaying a bit less social commentary, the brightly colored abstract landscape by the post-impressionistic artist Theodore Earl Butler Catskill Clove reveals a flare for the exotic, fauvist style that spread through New York galleries in 1910. In a truly American depiction of mundane yet jubilant spirituality, Lord Heal the Child by Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton presents a group of primitively rendered churchgoers set in a dynamic circular composition anchored by a single lantern—perhaps the light of God—shining down on them from the center of the room.

The couple celebrates all the art that comes into their home and takes pleasure in welcoming additions to the collection. Selecting where each artwork is going to reside is a carefully considered process, and once installed, the work rarely moves. They enjoy seeing their art in particular places; always there to greet and perhaps ground them as they pass. As Susan reflects, “We loaned our collection to a traveling exhibition, and when the movers took the art away, there was no soul left, no heart. All that was left was all just stuff. The art is part of the personality of the home, and they are good company.”

Leo Blake, Autumn Harvest, Oil on canvas, 28” x 32”

The Hainsworths value the whole experience of art collecting—the rush of finding something and then getting it, bringing it home, and reminiscing about the unique story behind each image. Sure, they’d love to own a Sargent, Whistler, or Cassatt, but while they aren’t ready to make that investment yet, John posits, “I’d like to have a work of art rather than buy a Mercedes.” Susan concludes, “Art’s spiritual . . . it transcends . . . that’s why I buy art and have it around my house.” With those attitudes, they will no doubt continue to grow their collection in tandem with their connection to each other.

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