Discovery through the beauty of nature
KT Carter’s collection of Boehm porcelain sculpture, a portion of which is on view at the Mark Twain Library in Redding through April 14, began with a chance encounter on eBay.
About three years ago, then recently widowed and living in Hanover, N.H., Ms. Carter was scrolling through eBay as a way of filling her time — “Something I later discovered is quite common among widows and widowers,” she said — looking for American Belleek porcelain pieces, when a picture of a beautiful bird, a large white ptarmigan, caught her eye. “I fell in love with it and knew I had to have it; I had no idea of what I was getting into,” she said with a laugh. “When it arrived it was bigger and grander than I expected and I wondered, whose is this?”
The maker was Edward Marshall Boehm (1913-1969). A former investigative reporter, Ms. Carter began researching Boehm (pronounced Beam) and learned he was a self-taught sculptor who had studied animal husbandry and bred cattle before the war, was in charge of a rehabilitation program for the Air Force in Pawling, N.Y., during and after the war where he taught vets natural history and began “fiddling with clay” in the arts and crafts room. He married Helen Franzolin in 1944 and “they joined forces; she fought to get his work shown in an era of European ceramics.”
He apprenticed for six months at the studio of sculptor Herbert Haseltine and the couple relocated to Trenton where he worked for Lenox before striking out on his own. Due his wife’s efforts, Boehm made his first major sale in 1951 — to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He created many commissioned pieces for politicians and diplomats, and in 1992 a wing of the Vatican Museums in Rome was named in his memory, the first time one of the 13 museums in the Vatican was named for an American; the others are named for popes and royal families.
“Boehm rendered nature beautifully in porcelain because he liked the medium’s permanence and I became fascinated by his early pieces, where he was experimenting with processes — his sculptures eventually comprised many individual pieces that were assembled into a finished piece — and improving his skills. I focused on collecting things he made between 1949 and 1969. I wanted things he created and hand signed — I even have one that is dated — before his company grew and became a manufacturer with a stamp.” She was especially drawn to Boehm’s earliest wildlife creations. “By today’s standards they are small and simple, slightly awkward, but they were intended for children’s Easter baskets and playthings, to help them learn about animals.”
Both the ptarmigan and a selection of the animals — including fox, dogs and deer — are in the 60-plus-piece exhibition, titled “The Art of Charming: Boehm Porcelain,” filling a number of cases in the center of the library. It is complemented by an exhibit of Ms. Carter’s closeup photographs of “Birds In Winter,” taken in her former home two years ago. The collecting and photography, with their emphasis on beauty and survival — Boehm selected some of his subjects because they were endangered — have helped her to heal from her loss, Ms. Carter said.
She grew up in urban areas and moving to Hanover was a bit of a culture shock, but her husband, Buddy, loved nature and introduced her to it and she gained an appreciation of her surroundings.
“I developed different spatial relationships from walking in the forests, observing wildlife,” she said. “It enriched my life to see the world from a different vantage point.” She also noted that Buddy created a wildlife sanctuary on their two-acre property, which had a brook running through it, adding birdbaths and feeders, enabling the couple to witness nature from their porch or out a window year-round.
On her own, watching wildlife and enjoying her new collecting hobby “help me feel closer to my husband, remembering the things we shared and to see the beauty in life.” She was also intrigued to discover many things that Boehm and Buddy had in common, especially that both had been orphans and both died suddenly at the age of 56. She added, “If there was one word to apply to the last few years of my life it would be ‘discovery.’”
Ms. Carter’s collecting progressed from eBay to auctions, but she happily finds the collecting population is greater for Boehm’s later, more elaborate works than the ones she prefers. Many are limited editions and her most rare is a one-of-ten lioness with a gloss finish; Boehm later moved to matte finishes.
Watching birds endure in the snowy winter of two years ago caused her to go more in-depth with photography. She was fascinated by the variety that continued to visit a cherry tree in her yard, despite the snow and ice that covered its branches. She wanted to capture how, although suffering in the harsh conditions, they pushed on and survived, eventually thrived. The photos, taken from about 10 feet away, are incredibly detailed and each tells a story.
“The birds gave me courage,” she said. “I thought if these little creatures can survive and thrive, so can I.
“The camera gave me my voice,” she continued. “In the short- and long-term, life is about change and adapting and individuals discovering that they can… Not just adapt to significant changes such as unexpected death, but even find a new voice… at that point in my own journey finding a way through grief was very important. That I discovered Boehm’s artistic contributions in my own search process was just a wonderful gift of inspiration.”
Ms. Carter moved to Redding last summer to be near her daughter and granddaughter, and greatly enjoys its winding roads and open spaces. She approached the library with her collection as a way of reaching out to the community, saying, “They belong where people can view and appreciate them,” and both porcelain and pictures have been well received.
As she continues on her journey, Ms. Carter said, “There has been so much serendipity, I feel like I am being guided.” Her next step is to publish children’s books using her wildlife photos to introduce birds and animals in various seasons. Her first working titles: Where Does The Chickadee Go When It Snows? and In the Garden of Nitch and Notch, about two chipmunks in spring and summer.
“The Art of Charming: Boehm Porcelain” and “Birds of Winter” can be viewed at the Mark Twain Library, 439 Redding Road (Route 53), through April 15. Visit marktwainlibrary.org for hours and additional library information.