A very personal collection

'Yele Aluko steps into the gallery at the Gantt Center, takes a few moments to dispense with the niceties of meeting new people and greeting the familiar, and strides straight to two Benny Andrews works on the wall.

He misses those pieces, part of the collection of African-American and African art he and his wife, Shirley, have built slowly since just after their college days.

Aluko and the other collectors featured in the "Charlotte Collects" exhibit at the Gantt Center have bargained with artists, set up payment plans and, in some cases, decided to buy a work of art instead of a much-needed sofa for the living room. They find art soul-fulfilling and they so want to support the artists that they carve out a bit of their income to collect.

"Charlotte Collects" includes work from the collections of 11 individuals or families. The exhibit runs through Jan. 23 at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in uptown. What is profound about the exhibit is not only that it includes important names in African-American art - Nick Cave, Camille Billops, Romare Bearden - but also that the collectors are dentists, doctors and employees at nonprofit agencies.

When they buy a piece of art, it is a serious budgetary consideration.

"It can be a hardship to pay for it, but it's worth it," says Suzanne Fetscher, who bought her Nick Cave mixed-media piece when the artist did a residency at the McColl Center, where she is president. "It really feeds your mind. It feeds your soul. It is a gift to me every day."

She and her husband, Elmar, paid for "Pestle" - bits of metal riveted together, with a wooden pestle nestled into a nook and a bunny perched atop it all - on a payment plan after Cave left Charlotte. "That's the only way I could afford it," she says.

Sterlin Webber remembers her mother-in-law, Loretta, explaining the family's art collection this way: "Sometimes we didn't have furniture, but we always had art."

The elder Webbers, Spurgeon Jr. and Loretta Webber, were to be honored with a 2010 Gantt Center Award on Dec. 2. They have two pieces in the show: "After Mozambique I," a mixed-media collage by Al Loving, and "Boy Sit," a watercolor by Carl Owens. Their son Spurgeon III and his wife, Sterlin, also have two pieces in the show: "The Conversation," a lithograph by Charlotte native Romare Bearden, and "Three Senors," a watercolor by Ann Tanksley.

The exhibit - and the artwork these Charlotte residents have carefully collected over decades - builds on the Gantt Center's John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art. The Hewitts - he worked as a freelance writer and she as a librarian - collected art for 50 years, celebrating special events with a new piece. The Gantt collection includes 58 pieces by 20 artists including Bearden, Margaret Burroughs, Jonathan Green, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Henry Ossawa Tanner.

The Hewitt legacy

Many of the collectors in "Charlotte Collects" are following in the footsteps of the Hewitts, says consulting curator Michael Harris.

"It's always interesting to see what people like," Harris says. "When you see a collection, you can look back into it and see the experience, the likes, the sensibilities of the collector. You kind of get a sense of where they've been. That's kind of fascinating."

It took Harris and Patrick Diamond, who works at the Gantt and has a piece in the exhibit, about 18 months to pull the show together. They looked at scores of pieces and chose 30. Each represents the best or most unique among the collections they viewed.

They also symbolize a void on a wall or a shelf at the home of each collector.

'Yele and Shirley Aluko have not found another artwork to occupy the wall outside their bedroom where "Let Me In" used to hang.

This Benny Andrews collage shows a figure standing before a pulpit, face and arms raised to heaven. A second figure kneels before him, forehead to the ground, struggling to stretch a right arm upward. Andrews is known for his elongated figures, so the appendages in "Let Me In" seem supernatural.

The second piece, "Chilling the Wine," is much more laid-back, and it focuses on one of 'Yele Aluko's other interests.

"My husband likes jazz," Shirley Aluko says, so they bought this pen-and-ink drawing showing a trumpeter blowing toward a stool topped with bottles.

Married for 24 years, the Alukos rarely disagree on what they'll buy. Both physicians, they met during their residency in New York. Even then, they were interested in art and collecting. He used to hit the flea markets; his first piece was a black-and-white Don Quixote. She went to school in Beaufort, S.C., with the artist Jonathan Green, whose paintings drew national attention when they appeared on the set of "The Cosby Show."

The couple moved to Charlotte in 1989 and bought their current home soon afterward.

They discovered they had more wall space than they knew what to do with.

So they nurtured their shared desire to understand more about art.

What they have come to know is that art is about more than what you see - it's about what it means.

"We began to understand the message that artists were trying to convey," 'Yele Aluko said.

Then he developed an interest in the artists themselves - and has met most of the creative forces behind the works he purchases.

Unexpected finds

The Alukos credit B.E. Noel, a longtime Charlotte art gallery owner, with teaching them so much about art collecting and with guiding them toward works whose value has grown.

Harris, the museum's consulting curator who teaches at Emory University and creates mixed-media artworks in his Atlanta studio, says he found Noel's influence everywhere.

"B.E. Noel was quite a presence in Charlotte," he says, "and she was a factor in exposing many people in the area to different artists."

He uncovered many treasures he didn't expect.

"I was delighted to find Nick Cave in Charlotte. That was gratifying to see. Also, Miss Scott's work," he says. "Sometimes certain artists and certain kinds of work might appear in Chicago and New York - like Nick Cave - and you might not find them as readily in museums and galleries in the South."

That's the other reason 'Yele Aluko was happy to part - for a brief time - with two works from his collection. He thinks everyone should know about these artists.

"We want to help make sure that there is an authentic representation of African-American and African art," he says. "It's underappreciated, undervalued and underexposed in the mainstream."

Within reach

U.S. Rep Mel Watt and his wife, Eulada, began collecting in the 1970s, with a piece by Esther Hill, who taught at UNC Charlotte. Their collection has grown to include Juan Logan, Sam Gilliam and T.J. Reddy, who went to the same high school as Eulada. "We got a piece when we could afford it," she says. "I'm not sure we could afford it now."

The Watts have five pieces in the show. They have to love the piece, she says, and they like to know the artist before they buy. So if those artists are up-and-comers from Charlotte, all the better.

Before the exhibit ends, collector T. Michael Todd, a Charlotte attorney, says he hopes many more people discover that collecting art is within reach.

When you see a work you like, he says, ask about prices, do more bargaining.

He owns a piece called "Jammin,' " by William Tolliver. When he met the artist, Todd complimented the piece but said he just didn't have the money to buy it. Tolliver was willing to work with him.

"He said, 'How much do you have?' "

And Todd took the piece home with him, to add to his collection.