MARY-CHARLOTTE DOMANDI: I’m delighted now to welcome to the program, Forrest Fenn

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25-10-2010 Santa Fe Radio Cafe Click Here
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Audio from Santa Fe Radio Cafe interview with Forrest Fenn (Starts at 30:00 minute mark) MARY-CHARLOTTE DOMANDI: I’m delighted now to welcome to the program, Forrest Fenn. He is an art collector, long time art gallery owner here in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he’s lived for nearly four decades. His new book is called The Thrill of The Chase, A Memoir, and he will be here at the Collected Works Bookstore here in Santa Fe at six o’clock. Welcome to the Radio Cafe.

FORREST FENN: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

DOMANDI: One thing that I find fascinating about art collectors is that many of them have been collecting since they were very small. You talk about, in your book, your collection of bottle caps, your collections of string that you had when you were very small. Does that, for you, is it the same kind of collecting no matter what the object is?

FENN: There are some people that don’t collect anything and I think you have to be born with it. My father was a collector. My grandfather was a collector.

DOMANDI: What did they collect?

FENN: Arrowheads mostly. Ancient things. You know, we loved to walk along the creek bottoms and look for signs of ancient man. My father had a huge arrowhead collection that I inherited from him.

DOMANDI: Where did you grow up?

FENN: Central Texas - Temple.

DOMANDI: And those things were just scattered along the ground?

FENN: Well they weren’t just scattered along, you had to look for them because plowed fields - farmers plowed them. You know that was - I grew up in Comanche and Kiowa country and I remember my grandmother, when I was a little boy, telling me about the Kiowas and the Comanche running through her barnyard trying to catch chickens in Fort Worth. Her father told her to just lock the door and leave the Indians alone. If they can catch the chickens, they can have them. So, you know, that’s rich in Indian lore - Central Texas, as is New Mexico, of course.

DOMANDI: And so you collected as a child, and then you were in the Air Force for 20 years.

FENN: 20 years.

DOMANDI: There’s a passage in your, there’s a section in your memoir about finding the headstone of a French soldier.

FENN: Yes.

DOMANDI: Can you - Do you want to tell that story?

FENN: Well, uh, it’s a rather long story. In my book, it’s rather lengthy. I went to this clearing in Vietnam, a friend and I, and we tripped over some headstones that were left over, we think, from the French Indochina war. But I tripped over one that was made of stone. And when I turned it over, it had a very poignant inscription on it, “If you should ever think of me when I have passed this vale, and wish to please my ghost, forgive a sinner and smile at a homely girl.” We were rushed, because we had to get out of there. This was in enemy country and it preyed on my mind for a number of years and I built the story around that. It had a lasting effect on me.

DOMANDI: It’s striking that your - at least it seems to me that reading this memoir, that your sense of mortality and the kind of odd nature of time is present throughout your life. In other words, there’s a moment, I think there’s a moment in here where you talk about the future, and you say, “What’s the future? Give me a date.” That we’re always somehow looking forward and looking back in this way that’s not really so linear.

FENN: In the future, there may not be a past like we’ve known. And, because we, uh, acknowledge the population explosion, we’re moving so fast in this planet we really can’t predict… We got into this recession all of the sudden. We didn’t see it coming. I think that idiosyncrasy of what we’re doing on this planet is indicative to what we have to look forward to in the future.

DOMANDI: How did you actually get into the business of collecting art, and having an art gallery?

FENN: Well when I was in Vietnam, I had a hard tour in Vietnam. Shot down twice. I lost 22 pounds and didn’t even know it, because we didn’t have any scales. When I came back to the States after a year, I was kind of beat up so to speak. I wanted to find a place where maybe the world would stop and let me off for a little while. And I knew about Santa Fe and I love Santa Fe. It’s the only place I knew of where maybe I could get a job. I knew I wasn’t going to wear a watch or a coat and tie. So Santa Fe looked good to me. I figured if I had to make a living, so I figured I could make a living in art, and that’s what prompted me. It was not the love of art, it was a necessity to make a living.

DOMANDI: And so how did you start?

FENN: I traded for some property here in town, and gave some money, and started at the very bottom of the art gallery business. The first two shows I had, I didn’t sell a piece of art. I didn’t even sell a book. But I had a little bit of money left, and I said I’m going to spend this money advertising, and if that doesn’t work, I said I’m going to slam the door and go do something else. But it started working. Advertising pays.

DOMANDI: What kind of art were you selling?

FENN: Anything I could scrounge from friends or other art galleries. I didn’t have any money to buy art, but we were hustlers and, you know, we slept on the floor on a mattress and we painted the building ourselves, my wife and I. Slowly, things started to work. Santa Fe is a wonderful place. The good thing, the one good thing about Santa Fe from a business standpoint is that people like it as a destination.

DOMANDI: And so, basically, people will come here, they will discover you even without knowing you were there.

FENN: If you have something that they want, and the word gets around, they’ll find you.

DOMANDI: So what ended up being the specialities, or the areas that you worked with at your gallery?

FENN: Well, since I didn’t know what I was doing to start off with, I figured - One thing I learned right away was that some of the art galleries in town that were not doing too well were handling the type of art that they, themselves, loved. And I thought that was a mistake. And I decided to handle the kind of art that somebody else loves. Because I wasn’t going to buy it for myself. And I saw a lot of galleries in Santa Fe go out of business because they loved what they were selling, or they were selling art by local people that were unknown and there’s a real market for that. And I’ve got a lot of respect for those people. I just decided that I wanted to handle more expensive things. It was hard starting out.

DOMANDI: And so, what was the kind of art that you identified that other people loved that you could sell?

FENN: The old Taos painters. There were about 14 or 15 really good painters in Taos. The Taos Society, which was ten, and there were painters like Nikolai Fechin and Leon Gaspard and some of the others. And we started building those names. They were relatively unknown in 1972. But over a period, a short period, two or three years, why their fame mounted, and today it’s really big time.

DOMANDI: What was the kind of art that you loved that decided not to sell?

FENN: That I loved that I decided not to sell?

DOMANDI: Yeah, because you say, “Okay, I’m not going to sell the art that I love.” Were there things that you collected just for yourself?

FENN: Well, you know, I didn’t have any money for a lot of years, and the things I collected, I couldn’t afford to keep. So, I tried to keep some things, but you know, when it comes to making payroll, you have to make decisions. I like Indian things. Plains Indians particularly. Southwestern. I like pots and baskets and I like the lore of the West and fond of reading about the west.

DOMANDI: You ended up doing very well with this gallery. And I thought it was interesting because you have, if I understand correctly, amassing a very large and significant collection yourself. Was there a turning point where you really started to do well both for yourself and in selling the work in your gallery?

FENN: Well, one thing that I can say for myself is that I never had to borrow money to make payroll. And that was the way I measured myself. If you have to borrow money to pay your employees, then something’s wrong. My motivation was to find a great object. Anybody can sell a great painting, but not everybody can find one. And I told my clients, I said, “If you’re in town at midnight or two o’clock in the morning, and you want to come see me, give me a phone number and I’ll open for you.”

DOMANDI: Did that ever happen?

FENN: It happened. Waylon Jennings called me one time. It was about two o’clock in the morning. He had some friends in town and they’d been drinking and he wanted to open the gallery. And I did.

DOMANDI: There is the process of selling objects, and then also, there’s the stories. I have a close friend that worked at an art gallery for a while and she said to me, “I’m not even selling art. I’m selling stories. I’m telling people stories, and that’s what makes them buy.”

FENN: Very interesting that you should mention that, because when I was a kid, I started making rules for myself. And one of the rules I made later on was this: It doesn’t matter who you are. It only matters who they think you are. That’s how Nieman-Marcus got there, and that’s how Andy Warhol got there. It goes right into what your friend was saying - it’s the story that sells. Of course, you want to be as honest as you can, but everybody embellishes just a little bit.

DOMANDI: Now, I was reading somewhere that you bought some land that had a ruin of an Indian pueblo on it.

FENN: Yeah. San Lazaro Pueblo.

DOMANDI: And, did you start excavating that yourself?

FENN: Yes. Archeology has been a hobby of mine since I found my first arrowhead when I was nine years old in Texas with my father. Since my father was a collector, and my football coach, we went out together on the weekends. It’s a wonderful thing for parents to take their kids out into the countryside. Whether it’s collecting arrowheads, or fishing, or whatever. And I grew up in that kind of an environment. And I loved it.

DOMANDI: And so you bought this, essentially, pueblo, and began to excavate it. Did you work with archeologists? Were you pretty much going solo?

FENN: Both. I have a good friend in Wyoming by the name of George Lehman, who has a Masters Degree in Archeology. And each summer he brings underprivileged kids from Wyoming. We called them under-appraised kids from Wyoming down and they’d camp out at the pueblo. And they excavate, and each one of them has a tent, and they stay a couple of weeks and it’s very rewarding for them and for us. We fund, we pay them a salary. They couldn’t afford to come down. And we give each one of them two pairs of hiking shoes and it’s really a good set up.

DOMANDI: It’s the kind - that’s the kind of story that I would imagine would, uh, people working within the institutions of archeology, who are writing books about archeology, would say that this should be done by professionals.

FENN: You know, Mary, there’s some argument there, but you know there are things more important than archeology. If we’re going to save this plane today, we’re going to do it with our youth. And we need to get them involved with something. We need to get them off the streets. We need to get the graffiti people out doing something that’s productive, and I don’t think any longer that we can say that these scientists - like archeology - they can’t be an island unto themselves. They have to participate, and they have to give something back. And archeology, it’s something that’s easy to love, and I don’t think archeologists give nearly enough to help the situation. We’re in trouble in this country, particularly with our youth.

DOMANDI: Very interesting. So have you seen young people’s lives be affected and turned around by this process of excavating?

FENN: Sure. Some of these kids that come down in the summertime, we have to have parole officer’s permission to get them out of the state. One boy, had a $25 car and it ran for 25 miles and so we bought him a car. I’ve got some friends in the car business here, and we bought him a really good used car. I got a telephone call from his mother, and said, “Don’t bring him back. I don’t want him back again,” and his father was gone. So he didn’t have any place to go. We put him in a junior college in Wyoming. I have a good friend here in town, Jim Taylor, who’s chairman of the United World College in Las Vegas, we’ve got some of our kids scholarships through there. And we see these kids grow up, and I get emails from kids that were here 10 years ago and it’s very rewarding to me to see what’s happening.

DOMANDI: The book is called, “The Thrill of The Chase.” Talk more about that title, and the things in life that have been thrilling for you that you’ve chased.

FENN: There’s a great quote in the new Joe Duveen book. It says, “They never knew that it was the chase they sought, and not the quarry.” Isn’t that interesting? Like I mentioned a while ago, the great thrill for me in the art business was to find a great painting. The thrill of the chase. It’s easy to sell it. But to find it - to walk into somebody’s house and see a great painting, it’s just like finding a great arrowhead lying on the ground, or catching a nice fish. And with women, every - and men too, go into antique shops and we go into garage sales for the same reason. It’s the thrill of the chase. And I think that title fit my book perfectly.

DOMANDI: Now, is it true that you found Sitting Bull’s pipe?

FENN: No, I didn’t find it, but I own it.

DOMANDI: Yeah, I mean you found it somewhere.

FENN: It came out of a little museum in Minnesota where a lot of Sitting Bull’s relatives retired. I’ve had it for a few years. It’s a very important piece.

DOMANDI: What happens to that piece eventually? Are you going to give it to a museum? Do you know?

FENN: Well I haven’t decided. You know, it could go a lot of different places. What I would like to do is sell it to a museum, and use the money for some of the things that I think are important like improving education for our youth. I’ve always thought that these museums are not doing enough to solve the problem. If I were a museum director, I would take a gang leader to the museum, show him around, and try to get him interested in something. Give him some responsibility, some authority. Maybe he can bring his buddies in. I think we are desperate to do something. And that’s what I like doing. I’m 80 years old, so I’m starting a little bit late. When I was a kid, in the 1930’s and 40’s drugs meant aspirin. And the really, really, really bad kids were smoking cigarettes. I remember a bunch of kids and myself got into a friend’s pickup truck one night about midnight and we had a garbage can full of garbage and drove down Main Street in Temple, Texas and threw that garbage can out on the street. And garbage just flew everywhere. Let me tell you, it was headlines in the paper the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Worst thing that had happened in that town in a long time. And that’s how I grew up, and I see things happening today and I just shake my head. I think every generation decides that theirs is going to be the last, because we can’t survive the way we’re going.

DOMANDI: Well, I mean, apparently on, in ancient Mesopotamian artifacts and hieroglyphics that survive somebody somewhere has written, “These kids today…”

FENN: That’s true. That’s why I’m saving a lot of my arrowheads. We may need them on the next - in the next war.

DOMANDI: Now you have done something quite unusual. I think, fascinating to many, which is that you buried a treasure chest somewhere in the hills or mountains north of Santa Fe, and have left clues in your memoir. Whereby people can find it.

FENN: That’s true. I’ve taken this treasure chest to a very secret, and very special place and I’ve hidden it there. And there are nine clues in my book. You have to read the book. But if you have an imagination, and you have a pretty good mind, and you have a little bit of resolve, you can find that treasure chest. First one to it can have it.

MARY: You’ve also made some bronze bells with inscriptions on them.

FENN: That’s right. I like that part in my book where I talk about the future. I’ve made - I’ve buried eight bells and jars, and all of them have sayings that I elevated around the... I cast them in bronze out at Shidoni Foundry Tesuque. And one of them says, “Ring the bell loudly for he who dies with over $50 is a failure.” Another one says, “If you should ever think of me a thousand years from now, please ring my bell so I will know.” And I’m burying these bells deep just indiscriminately out in the desert. And I don’t want anybody to find them for a thousand years or 10,000 years. But when someone does find one, accidentally, and reads that inscription, and sees my name and the date 2007 or 2008, they’re going to say, “Good lord, look who this…” The man that carved the Rosetta Stone - that thing was hidden for 2,000 years before it was found. And that’s the kind of thing that my imagination runs wild when we start talking about these things. And I said in my book, all of New Mexico is going to be covered in houses and asphalt. To the point where we can’t go outside and look across the desert for the thrill of seeing nothing at all. We don’t know where we are going. Things are happening too fast.

DOMANDI: Forrest Fenn is a long time art gallery owner, art collector, his new memoir is called, “The Thrill of The Chase” and he will be at Collected Works Bookstore tonight at six o’ clock. It’s really great to meet you and to have you on the Radio Cafe.