Douglas Max Utter, Rat Lady, 2018, was exhibited at HEDGE Gallery in Falling from the Sky of Now.

When you work as a first responder—especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic—you need effective ways to disengage and relieve stress when you are home. The Nowaks found the perfect asylum in their fast-growing collection of primarily local artists.

“Art heals our souls,” says Shelley, an ER nurse for 27 years.

She met Matt, a firefighter/paramedic since 2005, when he transported patients to the hospital where she was working. They ended up teaching night courses at the same college. They confirmed their love for each other by marrying in 2008, but their passion for art and collecting didn’t begin until ten years later. At that point, the couple owned some print collages and four beautiful ceramic pieces from Cowan Pottery Studio, which was located in Lakewood/Rocky River in the early 1920s. Mainly, though, their “art collection” featured the decorative poster prints that many couples initially choose to adorn their interiors.

That was until August of 2018, when they attended the Art on the Green festival in Hudson. They were both immediately drawn to the works displayed in Rob Crombie’s booth. Smitten with his Van Gogh-inspired paintings of southern France, the Nowaks officially bought their first original painting: Sunrise in Provence. They paid in installments and took possession that October.

Soon after Art on the Green, friends told them about Third Fridays at the 78th Street Studios. To celebrate Shelley’s birthday, they went to check it out on September 21. They had no idea the studios or the monthly event existed, but after exploring all of the galleries, inhaling the oil-paint scent in the air, talking with the artists, and feeling intoxicated by the creative energy, they “were hooked,” she says. They didn’t buy anything that night but quickly became regulars.

“On that very first Third Friday, we fell in love with an Eric Rippert painting that we just could not get out of our minds,” she informs. They took home a large business card with that painting, Everybody Thinks I’m A Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking), and hung it on their wall to see how it would look. The verdict? Amazing.

“We ended up going to a Watch it Wednesday program a month later that was a little bit smaller scale and hung out with Eric and got to know the kind, intelligent, passionate person behind his work, and it only made us love the painting more.”

They started communicating with him, eventually set up a payment plan, and took possession of the work in May 2019. Today, they own 23 paintings displayed in just about every room of their museum, er, home.

“Little by little, we gained relationships with all of those artists and purchased art from them,” Shelley says. “In our house it’s like being surrounded by friends, because everywhere we look is someone we care deeply about.”

Matt credits his partner with turning him onto art in the first place by introducing him to the Cleveland Museum of Art. As a somewhat introverted kid growing up on a farm in Elyria, driving tractors or working different jobs in the summer, he didn’t have much exposure to art. “Where’s this been all my life?” he says, gleefully recalling his first trip to the Armor Court and nearby galleries. “We have Picassos. We have a Monet. I’m three feet away from a Van Gogh?”

Prior to visiting 78th Street Studios, Matt explains, despite a long-held dream to own real art and support local artists, neither one of the Nowaks was sure how to go about it or where to even find it until they started attending local art shows. “It just felt like real art was unobtainable,” he says.

“It seemed like maybe it was too expensive and would be thousands and thousands of dollars,” Shelley adds.

Used to paying $70 for a framed, store-bought poster print, Matt remembers thinking “What are we doing here?” when they bought the Crombie painting.

“But then we were like, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s splurge. Let’s get an original art work!’” He continues: “At first you might be a little sticker-shocked, but then we woke up to it. There’s just a complete difference in the depth of color and richness and knowing the artist, and it just feels more alive in your home, a greater energy that you always enjoy, instead of a poster that you don’t even notice after a while.”

Those early morning smiles upon seeing a painting, those feelings of friendship and personal connection to the artist, that satisfaction or owning a piece with substance and soul are the things that led to the couple exhibiting twenty-plus paintings in their home.

Though they’ve made a few impulsive purchases, every one of them has been worth it. Shelley confirms: “Whether it was a good idea at the time, I don’t regret any of them. We always see beyond the painting to our friend who painted it and all the fond memories we associate with it.”

Another artist friend, Dawn Tekler, whose encaustic wax paintings hang in the Nowaks’ living room, says it’s a mutual experience: “Shelley and Matt collect people’s art that they like, and the friendship that they’ve built on that piece of artwork is a very powerful thing. I am very thankful that they have come into my life.”

Their hard but joyously earned advice for reluctant collectors? Go to the art shows and galleries and, if you see something you really love, communicate with the artists. They understand.

“For people who might be intimidated, between the two of us, we work four jobs, so we make things like art and travel a priority with our finances,” Shelley says. “If you fall in love with something but don’t have $2,500 right there to spend, the artists have always been willing to allow us to make payments, and that’s always made owning original artworks very attainable.”

“They budget their money really well,” affirms friend Dave Crider, who the Nowaks commissioned to craft an ambrosia maple/Azuria® glass coffee table for their living room. “It takes me seven or eight weeks to complete a piece, so I usually allow my customers to pay me a little bit at a time until it’s finished.”

The rewards and benefits have proven priceless for the Nowaks, especially during the early days of significant uncertainty for two first responders during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“We appreciate the way that art heals us spiritually, especially in the darkness of our jobs,” Shelley reveals. “It’s like the yin and yang with the job, the balance that it brings into our lives. You can’t put a price tag on what it’s done for us.”

“It’s nice when you get home from that shift, and you need to defuse because it’s still in your mind,” Matt adds. “But you feel like you can just look around and relax and be yourself again. It’s almost like walking through an art museum.”

As they stroll through the Nowak Museum, they treasure reflecting upon several paintings by Wendy Higbee Carando, an artist friend of Crombie who works in Southern France; four photographs by Cleveland photographer Greg Murray; a print collage by Cleveland artist Randy Maxin; five pieces by local ceramic artist Suki; one print by Nat Reed from one of their favorite vacation spots, Palm Springs, California; and paintings by local artists Hilary Gent, Kat Francis and Doug Utter, including his portrait of Shelley wearing a face mask that he did after seeing a photo of her.

In addition to loving and enjoying their art collection together, the Nowaks feel a serious responsibility to care for each piece in their collection.

“Yes, you own it, but you become the stewards of someone’s work,” Shelley concludes. “We respect and cherish these pieces and are honored to be their caretakers. We have on our walls a piece of the artist’s soul. It makes us feel very connected to each of them on an even deeper level.”