Joe and Elaine Kisvardi Collect Cleveland School Artists as Friends, Too
Joe Kisvardi’s collection of Cleveland School artworks comes with a distinctive provenance: He and his wife, Elaine, shared as much or more time enjoying their close friendships with the artists as they did admiring their art in galleries.
After serving in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968 during the Vietnam War, Kisvardi returned to Cleveland. His family lived in the Kamm’s Corners neighborhood when he was born, then moved to Fairview Park, where he attended high school.
“My father was an engineer and he loved to read, so we grew up with lots of books, like the Harvard Classics,” Kisvardi recalls. “We also spent time at the wonderful Cleveland Museum of Art, the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Cleveland Orchestra, etc., so I was always interested in the arts.”
Kisvardi enrolled at Bowling Green State University, but left to enlist in the Marines. Upon his return, he started his own house painting and repair contractor business. By 1982, he was doing work for Berenice Kent, or “the Art Deco lady of Cleveland” as he affectionately calls her. He saw some of Cleveland School of Art artist Edris Eckhardt’s work in Kent’s antiques shop.
When Kisvardi inquired whether Eckhardt might trade his skills in painting and repair for one of her luminescent works, his new friend responded: “Would she?! Go down to the Ross Widen Gallery, and buy the glass horse.” He did and proudly exhibits Dawn to this day in the Kisvardis’ beautiful home and personal art gallery in Medina.
Just three weeks into Kisvardi’s “collecting Cleveland” adventure, Eckhardt—famed for her bronze, ceramic and glass sculptures and her work with the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Art Project of Cleveland—asked him to drive her to Trenton, NJ, for the opening of a ceramics show called The Diversions of Keramos: American Clay Sculpture, 1925-1950. Suddenly, the fledgling collector found himself hobnobbing with three Cleveland School legends—Eckhardt, Viktor Schreckengost and his then fiancé Nadine Averill, and Clarence Holbrook Carter—at the 1983 show.
His growing Cleveland School crew fostered his newfound love of collecting their work, and they welcomed the affable, inquisitive young man into their private worlds.
“Edris was very good to me in that way,” Kisvardi recalls. “She knew Paul Travis, Frank Wilcox, Schreckengost, Kenneth Bates, all these Cleveland artists. She had a house full of their work because, like some of the artists did, she would trade with them. So she would say, ‘do you have a Travis oil in your collection?’ I’d say, ‘no.’ She’d say, ‘take that one off the wall!’ She was very generous to me.”
In the 1950s, Eckhardt had worked through thousands of failed attempts before rediscovering a process that had been lost to artists for 2,000 years: the Egyptian art of fusing gold leaf between sheets of glass to produce gold glass. Kisvardi’s collection includes a stunning early piece of her gold glass, The Three Kings, that he displays in his study.
Kisvardi and others cared for the increasingly eccentric octogenarian who had become known for saying whatever she felt. He laughs when he recalls how she would regale journalists with harrowing tales of escaping from a hotel fire as a child or give them varying dates for her birth: 1905, 1910, 1912. Upon her death in 1998, she left many of her personal papers to Kisvardi, who only then confirmed 1905 when he found her birth certificate. He wrote an article about his friend and hero, “Getting to Know Edris Eckhardt,” for the July/August 2007 issue of Journal of the American Art Pottery Association.
Kisvardi’s study also features a remarkable collection of more than 100 photographic or penned portraits of Cleveland School artists, some drawn by the other artists. In one corner stands a small shrine to his dear friend Viktor Schrekengost, including a tricycle, sleek metal file cabinet and dinnerware. On one wall hangs a T-square with the initials VS from his days as an industrial design student at the Cleveland School of Art in the mid-1920s.
A set of flat files and vertical file cabinets contain an extensive archive of private papers, correspondence, articles, photographs and other items Kisvardi’s Cleveland School pals gave him over the years, including a set of May Show programs; a collection of Schrekengost’s designs for the US Navy’s Special Devices division during World War II, along with Christmas cards he received from other artists; and a decorative piece of stone from the original CSA building on Juniper Road, grabbed by Paul Travis while the building he so loved was being demolished.
There’s even a bronze cigar cast from one of Winston Churchill’s Havanas, left in an ashtray after one puff during a visit to Samuel Halle’s Cleveland Heights home in 1931, where his son Randolph’s hopes of marrying Kay Halle were dashed; the cigar, however, was saved by Kay’s mother Blanche and later given to William McVey for his iconic bronze sculpture of Churchill placed in front of the British Embassy in Washington, DC, in 1966. McVey later passed a copy of the partially-chomped stogie along to Kisvardi.
“Ephemera was just as much fun for me to collect as the papers,” he says. “A lot of the artists entrusted them to me.” He has bequeathed his entire archive and collection to the Cleveland Museum of Art in his will.
“Joe is such a unique collector whose devotion to and understanding of Northeast Ohio artists stuns me,” says Grafton Nunes, recently-retired president of CIA. “A tour of his house is an excavation trench through the finest 2D and 3D visual art our region has produced. And what is so very special is that he befriended these artists. His archive of correspondence with them is an invaluable resource. I feel honored that Joe included me in his portrait collection.”
Not long after his early Cleveland School artist exploits, Kisvardi met Elaine. She had also graduated from Fairview High School and went on to major in art and English at Albion College in Michigan, where she fell in love with pottery and ceramic art and became a fiber artist shortly afterward.
Elaine taught art for many years and eventually worked as a librarian at Fairview Park Library, which Kisvardi patronized regularly to peruse art books. Another librarian, who knew that Elaine had her eye on Joe, introduced the two. They lived together for a decade before getting married at a lovely garden park by Niagara Falls.
When he was 48, Kisvardi reaped the rewards of his hard work and retired. The couple bought a 23-acre farm property, Evergreen Ridge, in Medina, where they lived for ten years before moving to their current residence.
Other highlights of their collection on display in their home include Honoré Guilbeau’s ceramic The Blessed Damozel; an egg tempura portrait of Eckhardt by Hazel Janicki paired with one of Janicki’s self-portraits; a drawing of a horse by Z. Virginia Filson Walsh, who drew the bear family for Highlights Magazine; a lamp designed by Paul Fehér in the 1920s for Rose Iron Works and later updated electronically by Mel Rose; and Jeddu, a striking bronze sculpture with gunmetal black patina by Schrekengost. Niobi, Schrekengost’s exquisite mask of the character from Greek mythology that was important to Nadine, stares ahead from one end of their front room mantle.
Thanks to Elaine’s interest in American folk art, the couple expanded their collection to include works that they often acquired in Kentucky on their way to vacations in Florida. Minnie Adkin’s Possums—a mother with babies hanging on her tale—strolls on a shelf near their first-floor fireplace, and her lengthy black horse anchors the other end of the mantle.
“I don’t think Joe was as enchanted with folk art as I am,” Elaine says with a chuckle. “It’s more abstract, but I love the simplicity of it, yet it has a charm and attitude.”
The Kisvardis also became deeply interested in contemporary Cleveland artists, such as Timothy Callaghan, whose painting, Gus’s Diner, hangs in their living room. After he visited Evergreen Ridge for dinner one night, Chuck Basham asked if he could do some sketches of their rolling farm property. He later returned bearing two pastel paintings of their greenhouse and cutting field that now hang in the kitchen of their Medina residence.
Two other favorite artists and newer friends, Brent Kee Young and Kristen Cliffel, are also on display on the first floor: And Someone’s Been Sleeping… In My Bed, a delicate glass chair by the former; and Growing Houses in the Fields, a cupcake with a barn and a field of small houses growing, by the latter.
“Joe and Elaine are the kind of folks we want to clone in the NEO arts microcosm,” states Liz Maugans, director of YARDS Projects. The Kisvardis own several of her mixed media pieces from a series called Beautiful Mess created for Hedge Gallery. “A chance connection to an epic artist like Schrekengost led to a lifetime of celebrating not only the Cleveland School, but also the next generation of artists to come. Joe and Elaine clearly appreciate their deep connections to artists and the galleries they have supported.”
After a moment of thought about their substantial collection, Elaine quips, “Well, we can’t fit much more in here now.”
In a slightly more serious reflection, Joe concludes: “Without the help and support of Elaine, I never could have done this. We got along as far as most of the collecting, and we met a lot of nice people who became great friends along the way, too.”