When Patrons Become the Artists

The "cork chair" is susceptible to wine stains.
The "cork chair" is susceptible to wine stains.

Something peculiar occurred when Karen Hayden-Jaffe hosted a recent artist’s reception and fundraiser. The brains behind the 501(c)(3) nonprofit NomaArt, Hayden-Jaffe noticed the reception brimmed with patrons and donors, but no one from the general public, including the artist, had bothered to show up. That’s when the former Hollywood studio executive had a revelation.

“With the economic downturn, underwriting an arts organization is a needless extravagance for all but a tiny few, whose generosity is our life’s blood,” said Hayden-Jaffe. “Then it occurred to me, why not cut to the chase and create a gallery exclusively for the people who can afford it. That way, we don’t need the general public or even artists to be sustainable as an organization. The patrons become the public as well as artists.” As can be expected, Hayden-Jaffe’s so-called “artron” concept has raised some eyebrows in the arts community, but a number of patrons don’t seem to mind that they’ve become complicit in what amounts to a private art club.

Hayden-Jaffe describes artrons as those who have already made their fortunes and can now afford “La Vie Bohème,” but without having to suffer the indignity of actually being bohemian, which is to say broke. Hayden-Jaffe’s critics, however, suggest that she is preying on the largesse of her patrons with a mix of flattery and circular logic that goes something like a) Artists are eccentric; b) The affluent can afford to be eccentric; thus c) The affluent can afford to be artists. Among the emerging scene of local artrons is Lars Haskell, who describes himself as “The biggest ‘cork dork’ in the Valley,” given his passion for creating wine-cork sculptures. What began as an avocation assembling statuettes hewn from everyday objects akin to folk art one might see hewn from wire or match sticks, has blossomed into a full-time obsession creating life-size replicas of everyday objects. Take his living room.

Haskell has built not only a replica of his living room in the capacious NomaArt gallery, he also included its contents. From the divan to an entertainment center replete with HD television and surround sound – everything is made from wine corks. When asked how one differentiates between a hi-definition and a standard definition, flat screen TV made of wine corks, Haskell smiled and said “True aficionados can tell the difference.”

It doesn’t take a cork-sculpture expert, however, to tell the difference between Haskell’s wife and the cork mannequin he constructed of her, which is laid supine on the cork chaise. The female figure is rendered in exacting detail, sans her breasts, which are notably larger than their inspiration. “We can perfect in art, what we can’t perfect in nature,” Haskell laughed as he sat next to his cork-wife in his cork living room. According to Haskell’s wife, Linda, her husband, a retired aerospace engineer, spends much of his time in the simulacra of their now under-populated living room, occasionally clicking the cork-remote control.
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“It’s quieter here,” said Haskell, who is often misconstrued by fellow patrons as part of his elaborate art installation.

In the weeks since Haskell completed his work, titled simply, “Wine Cork Living Room with Furniture and Wife,” he has inspired several of his fellow artrons to embark on their own works to be featured in upcoming exhibits.

Among them is a series of watercolors painted exclusively with rare vintages of wine (“There is great pigment variation between the varietals” explained an artron, who wished to remain anonymous) and a performance piece dubbed, ironically, “Sour Grapes” in which artron Tim Reichling is fed the namesake fruit by an art student.

“There’s no dearth of talented rich people. I’ve found the richer they are, the more talented they are,” said Hayden-Jaffe, who recently launched NomaArt.com. “There’s definitely a relationship there.”

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