The Vasilovich Home: History & Heritage Speak Volumes
Once in a while, you come across a home that stands out because it doesn’t stand out. That is to say its roof and its walls, the doorways and the hallways, the bedrooms and even the furniture are lost in an overall mood, atmosphere, or you may call it a theme. The very things that make a home, well, they’re absorbed into the whole. Think of it this way; A forest is made up of its parts – trees and branches, animals, scents, and sounds. Sometimes, though, a forest is so palpably a forest, so overwhelmingly more than the sum of its parts that the individual branches and trees disappear. You can’t see the trees for the forest, so to say. The atmosphere of the home of Bob and Adair Vasilovich is something like that.
There’s much more to say about what’s in the Vasilovich home than the home itself. But even then, when all those parts are brought together, hung on the wall, or placed on the mantel, the atmosphere is transporting. Their “collection” of Western and Native American art might be the largest private collection of its kind in the Central Valley, if not elsewhere. They’ve been collecting for 35 years: a personal interest that also happens to be a personal history. Their home represents their lifestyle, a collaboration of
two cultures, an expression of dual heritages, of Western roots and Native American blood – “of Cowboys and Indians,” says Adair.
About a year ago, Bob and Adair Vasilovich lived in a different home, smaller than their current one, which by no means, asserts Adair, is very large. Still, the last home didn’t have the wall space to hang the art – authentic paintings and portraits on canvas and hide, genuine artifacts from different Native American tribes from around the country. A friend had even told Adair, “You and Bob need to live in a home with high ceilings so we can create a gallery like a museum.” Adair responded, “Well gosh, I don’t know when that will ever be.”
Not long after, Adair happened to find a house with a backyard just off the golf course of the Visalia Country Club – but that wasn’t the allure. When Adair walked in and saw the white walls and the high ceiling, she thought, “this is the room, this is the place.” Adair, a visual person, immediately imagined the artwork hanging on the walls, each piece in its proper place.
In their last home, though, some quilts were stored away, most everything else was on display. They’ve been in their new home since last April, and now they wonder, “how in the world did we have all this stuff in the smaller house?” The high, peaked roof in the living room offers Bob and Adair plenty of space to hang any new art they are sure to purchase. Finally, they have a proper gallery. “Anyone who comes in here, that’s the first thing they say,” says Adair. “It looks just like a museum.”
This was far from the case more than 35 years ago, before Adair and Bob bought their first piece. Before the Western and Native American art, their home looked like a scene from the beach. “It was blues and greens,” admits Adair, laughing, “I just had to be around the beach. And if I couldn’t do that, then everything had to be centered around the beach.” And then, says Adair, “everything just started to change, and it changed so dramatically.” How had it changed? “The things in my family, I wanted them around me.”
Adair was born in Texas and though she grew up in California, she still considers herself a Texan. “I was raised as a cowgirl, technically, as a kid, on ranches with cows and horses,” she says. “When I was old enough to do anything, I was out riding horseback with my dad.” Her family history also has deep roots in Texas. Her great grandfather, who went by W. T. Jones, was one of the first pioneers to bring Hereford cattle from England to West Texas.
So perhaps it was natural for Adair to have an affinity for Western art, as well as Native American art. Adair was always drawn to these cultures, almost intuitively; though she never could exactly explain to herself why.
Adair’s specific interest in Native American art and culture began after she saw Billy Jack, a 1971 movie about a Navajo-American Indian, which introduced her to the realities of segregation and discrimination against Native Americans. Adair believes that it was the teacher in her. “I really thought about it a lot,” she says, and then began to study the culture.
Seeing that film began Adair’s lifelong interest in Native American tribes and culture, and soon after she bought her first piece of art, a large painting of men on horseback with large billowing clouds in the background. The painting reminded her of home, the skies in Marfa, Texas, “which is the most beautiful place in my mind.” Like most of her art, Adair bought this piece directly from the artist.
“We were driving, and there was this gentleman, he was Native American, and he was sitting on the street corner painting.” The street corner was in Exeter, and the man was Ivan Jesse Curtis, whose art now hangs in the Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Gene Autry Museum. His painting hangs prominently over the mantle above the Vasilovich fireplace.
Adair also inherited family heirlooms, like the Colt 45s her great grandfather carried in a shoulder holster while driving cattle from Texas to Kansas. Above a display of those pistols, surrounded by sculptures and arrows and pottery, hangs another painting by Curtis of a stagecoach and three riders.
Her collection grew quickly, and while it is impossible to catalogue her entire collection, there is no doubt that Adair could. She seems to know the name of every artist, their tribe, and where they are from. Whenever she met an artist, like Brian Campbell or Rosie Ramsey of the Ojibwe in Wisconsin, she asked them to make individual pieces. She never commissioned something too specific, believing it would hinder the artists’ ability to speak through their own work.
Adair met Brian Campbell when he was 22 years old, during a trip to Wisconsin where she was visiting friends. “His grandfather had been with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe,” says Adair, and many of Campbell’s paintings are inspired from drawings in his grandfather’s journal. Much of his work, which is painted on caribou hide and framed by birch branches, hangs on the walls of the Vasilovich home.
On another wall hang leather and hide purses, decorated with intricate beadwork and geometric patterns, adorned with feathers or strips of fur. “I got that from South Dakota,” says Adair, describing a Lakota Sioux purse. Rosie Ramsey made another, a dark purse with three roses. A third purse from the 1800s is Blackfoot, which Adair bought in Colorado.
There’s pottery from the Acoma in New Mexico, and a chief’s smoking pipe that came from South Dakota. Moccasins and tobacco pouches and woven baskets can be found throughout the home. On the mantel stand brightly colored Kachina dolls, “which represent different parts of the lives of Native Americans.” The eagle, the ogre, the butterfly and buffalo, “each of these is handmade and part of the myths and legends of these different tribes,” says Adair – tribes like the Navajo and Zuni. The Eagle Kachina was an early purchase. “The eagle was so important to me, and I don’t know why,” mulls Adair.
As a child, Adair had no idea that she might have any connection with Native American tribes. “I’m not so sure that I realized it right away,” she admits. It wasn’t until about 20 years ago, through conversations with family members on her father’s side, that Adair discovered that she actually has Cherokee heritage. As recently as four years ago, Adair also uncovered ties to the Penobscot tribe in Maine. She admits that she’s not full blood, “but in my mind it doesn’t make any difference.”
“Having already had the love for Native American culture,” says Adair, “well, it just makes total sense.” She often asked herself why she felt this affinity for the culture and history, why did she collect this art, why was it so important? Upon learning about her family’s Native American history, Adair said, “well, now it makes total sense.”
But her ties aren’t limited to Cherokee and Penobscot tribes only. Adair frequently visits an Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin, two to three weeks at a time every three to six months. She’s taught classes there, made friendships, including with the artist, Brian Campbell. She was even adopted into the tribe, given an Ojibwe name by a tribal elder: On-don-a-mon, which means West Wind. And for Adair, that adoption into the tribe was almost more important than discovering she had Native American roots. “I would have been just as proud having been adopted into that tribe, and not being connected in the first place,” says Adair.
Adair admits that she’s sentimental. Everything in the house has a history and it’s right place. She longs for the skies in Marfa, Texas. “Every six months I have to have my fix and watch Giant,” an old film with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor that was filmed in Marfa, her hometown. She admits that the first painting she bought is probably her favorite piece, since it has local ties through the artist. And she and Bob certainly intend to travel and fill their home with more art.
As for Bob, who has a wonderful Eastern European heritage, this passion and appreciation for Western and Native American art, “he’s developed a love for it as well,” says Adair. “He’ll tell you that himself.” And walking into the Vasilovich home, it’s hard not to believe her. It’s like walking through a door and stepping out onto the open plains; it’s like experiencing a piece of American history.