Scott Heffley Interview by Alice Thorson

As the senior conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Scott Heffley has restored such masterworks as Rembrandt’s “Young Man in a Black Beret” (1666) and a large painting by noted American still life painter Severin Roesen.

In his spare time, Heffley is also an insatiable collector of “things of beauty and curiosity.”

Roughly 50 works from Heffley’s collection are displayed as part of “The Magnificent Collection of Gilbert G. Hargrove,” a show of odd and wondrous things based on the story of a fictional 19th century adventurer, on view in gallery P10 through March 24.

Items lent by Heffley include a trio of suspended pufferfish, crystal balls and a Victrola.

The loans certainly did not leave any noticeable gaps in the striking and intriguingly diverse display at his Southmoreland neighborhood house, where one might have expected flea market clutter. Instead, the first impression is of light and space. The wood floors gleam under a combination of soft lighting and the glow from stained glass panels over several windows.

Displayed on the walls, tables and stands, each object is given ample visual space or resonates within groupings of similar items.

Clearly, it’s a place put together with an artist’s eye.

Q. Tell us about your house.
A. It’s a nest for a collection. It’s a shirtwaist, built in 1898. I’ve been here 26 years, and I renovated it from scratch, with a new roof, fascia, gutters, furnace, A/C and electrical. I had to sand the second and third floors, and all the walls have been painted. The place was tired. It had been handed down in the same family to the owner prior to me. It was never molested. None of the woodwork was painted.

Q. What do you collect?
A. African-American quilts — Smith Kramer exhibitions company traveled my quilt collection, and the Kansas City Star did a book. Also, prehistoric American Indian objects, outsider art, Russian icons, traditional folk art, bottle whimseys, art deco glass, frames, stands, minerals. Things of beauty and curiosity. I like items from the 1950s inspired by space themes like rockets and planets. Recently I’ve begun collecting jewelry as sculpture.

Q. There are a lot of objects here that look more like tools or implements than works of art.
A. I like mechanical objects. I have a chainsaw that I see as a gorgeous piece of mechanical art. I have handmade salesman samples of pieces of equipment — a plow, a mower, a road grader — and a set of eyeglass testing lenses from Austria.

Q. I’m amazed at what a unity you’ve made out of such a diverse collection of things. How do you keep it from looking like a jumble?
A. All the walls are white. I’d rather have the artwork show than the environment. I want the whole house to be a unit, not each room to be a unit. It unifies the space. You can put anything in there and it will work.

Q. I think it also has to do with the way you put things together — the cowhides laid on the floor and over the couch, and the cowhide upholstered chair in the living room, for instance. I also like the way you have all those cap guns, like a flock of birds, mounted on the wall by the staircase.
A. I like repeated patterns, and I don’t want to clutter things up. I hate symmetry. With asymmetry there are all kinds of choices. I spent a lot of time positioning that mother-of-pearl pillowcase on the wall beside the couch.

Q. That’s quite a bathroom. What’s the story with the toilet seat?
A. I’d heard that going to gun shows you can find some interesting antiques, and I went to a couple but they’re very scary. That’s where I found the toilet seat. Those are Franklin Mint miniatures that a rancher had put into a lucite toilet seat. I walked out with it proudly. The miniatures cost $20-$30 each. The bathroom also has the original tub dated 1898 and the original clothes chute. They thought of those things back then. I also have big closets.

Q. Tell me about the dozens of bunches of resin grapes you have so stunningly arranged in this room overlooking the backyard.
A. They cost about $15 a bunch. It’s like stained glass. I put it in after I restored the Nelson’s Roesen still life with all those grapes around 1990. Friends would give them to me for Christmas — the red and pure yellow are harder to find.

Q. The outside vista with that fir tree and the two horse heads mounted on that structure in back is as alluring as the interior.
A. Those metal horses’ heads are from Mexico, and the structure is the original carriage barn that was on the property. When I bought the house, it was leaning into the power lines.

Q. And where did the floor-to-ceiling window come from?
A. It’s a big factory window from New Hampshire. There’s one on each floor, facing east. Upstairs it lets morning light into the bedroom.

Q. What else is upstairs?
A. I use the master bedroom as a studio and there are three rooms on the third floor, where I stash stuff and made a “Heffley period room” of family items, including a Sirocco wood horse piece from the 1950s that we had when I was growing up.

Q. Where do you find things?
A. The 45th and State Line shops, flea markets, antique shows. I buy from the Art Institute student sales. That’s where I found the little painting of a bathroom by Melaney Mitchell. I go to Europe, and when I travel, I always bring a big suitcase and bubble wrap.

from the Kansas City Star
Photo by Jill Toyoshiba

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