A Natural Eye

Art Collector Steve Krensky’s Quest for Beauty

Steve Krensky is an avid art collector whose Rockville home is filled with hundreds of works that range in mood from the enchanting to the troubling.

While most of the works in the collection are paintings, there are also a variety of other media represented, including drawings, prints, photographs, and three-dimensional pieces.

The human figure plays a key role in a majority of the artworks.  It’s a subject that “fascinates me,” he says.

His emotional reaction is the determinative factor when considering whether or not to buy a new piece.  “I have to have a connection to it,” he says.  “It has to draw me in.  Excite me.”

It also helps if the piece is “surprising” and “unusual” and “something that I’ve never seen before.”

From Covering Walls to Going Into Debt

His interest in buying art started in 1987, when, after moving into the house, he needed to do something about all of its bare walls.

“I started going to Washington-area galleries to find pieces that would cover the walls,” he says.  He was surprised to find that “there was so much talent in the area.”  The galleries, he says, offered high-quality art at reasonable prices.

Even though he had never taken a course in art history or art appreciation, he discovered that he had confidence in his aesthetic taste right off the bat.  Asked where he thinks that confidence came from, he says simply, “I can’t explain it.”

About ten years ago, he and his wife Linda reached the point where their collection covered virtually all of the available wall space.  As a result, there was a rise in the criteria for new acquisitions.

“Now, whenever we purchase a work of art, it has to be at least as good as what we own because we’ll have to take something off of the walls to make room for it,” he says.

So, when he’s in a gallery contemplating making a purchase, his mind travels back to his house and tries to settle on a piece that could be replaced by the new one.

But if he’s totally bowled over by a piece and it’s within his budget, he’ll go ahead and buy it without resolving the question of where he’s going to put it.  “If I like it, I will find a place,” he says.

Sometimes an artwork will be so irresistible that even budgetary issues have to take a back seat.  “Linda and I have often said that we will go into debt if there’s a piece of art we like,” he says, adding that this is something that they’ve done more than once.

The collection has grown so large that a number of the artworks can’t even be displayed and have to be kept in a storage room.  Asked if he sells pieces from the collection, he answers in the negative.  “I collect because I collect.  I don’t collect to sell.”

Continuity in the Family Business

Krensky was born in D.C., attended public schools in suburban Maryland, and had his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom Congregation, which was then located on Eastern Avenue in Northwest Washington.

He graduated from Montgomery County’s Walter Johnson High School in 1966.  Then he spent four years in the Navy, stationed in Florida.  Following his stint in the military, he attended the University of Maryland.  After graduation, he went to work for his parents, who had been running Country Squire Cleaners at the main intersection in Potomac, Maryland, since 1957.

He remembers when River Road was just a dirt road and Potomac had “more horses than people.”  It was a time in which “the majority of  Jews in Potomac ran the shops and services.”  How things have changed.

Around ten years ago, he bought the business from his parents and since then has been running it successfully enough to support six children as well as his appetite for art.

A Gallery and a Website

About six years ago, he and Linda opened the Light Street Gallery in Baltimore.  A key motivation was the desire to have a venue in which they could show the work of artists whom they admire.

The more one talks with Krensky, the more it becomes apparent that one of the reasons he collects art is because it’s such an important way of supporting local artists.  The gallery was intended to be an additional way of giving their careers a boost.

While the gallery hasn’t done as well in its bricks-and-mortar location as had been anticipated and presently is open only by appointment, Linda has been having a nice run of success in selling pieces off of  the gallery’s website, which is at:  www.lightstreetgallery.com

It’s a pleasant site that’s easy to navigate and filled with the work of numerous talented artists.

Catching Up with Selma Hurwitz

One of them is Selma Hurwitz, a Potomac-based Jewish artist whose work was presented in a one-woman show at the gallery.

She works in a medium that she invented.  She calls it hadbakah, from the Hebrew word meaning “to adhere” or “to glue.”  It involves meticulously gluing metal-covered threads onto a surface to create images that have a shimmering quality to them.  She demonstrated it to me in her studio ten years ago, and her enthusiasm for it was compelling.  She works in a realistic style, and Judaic subjects constitute a large portion of her oeuvre.

“I have a great respect and regard for her work,” says Krensky.  “She’s unique, and takes a different spin on every subject matter she engages in.  And quite frankly, I’ve never found anyone who does work like her.”

Ms. Hurwitz has pleasant things to say about the Krenskys, too.  “They’re absolutely wonderful people,” she says.  “To have my artwork there was an honor for me because I think they both have excellent taste.”

Asked to provide an update on how her career is going, she says, “I’m 83 years old, but my art career is exactly as it was when I was 40.  I continue to have one-person shows.  I just had one at Syracuse University, and I was very honored because my medium is unique, and they asked me if I would teach a class.  And to have been a student there and suddenly teaching a class was absolutely wonderful.”

After graduating from Syracuse in the late 1940s, she says she went on to become “the first female disc jockey in New Jersey.”  That experience may have set the stage, in one way or another, for the successful career of one of her sons, Seth Hurwitz, a local musical entrepreneur who owns D.C.’s 9:30 Club.  “Maybe he got it from me,” she says.

She notes that of the 535 hadbakah pieces that she’s created in her career, fewer than 50 remain unsold.  The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., Israel’s Yad Vashem, and the Knesset building in Jerusalem are among the institutions that own her work, which often addresses themes pertaining to the Holocaust.

A nice selection of her work is permanently on display at Rockville’s B’nai Israel Congregation.  Her father was the executive director of the congregation back when it was located on 16th Street in Northwest D.C., and she says that this is one reason why “it gives me great pleasure to have my work hanging on the walls there.”

The Krenskys’ website features 28 reproductions of her hadbakah works.  To view them, go directly to www.lightstreetgallery.com/ArtistGallery/Selma%20Hurwitz/original%20Artwork

The Benefits of Being a Collector

Krensky says that collecting gives him “satisfaction and excitement.”

Besides the actual content of the pieces, there are some additional factors that enhance the art-collecting experience for him.

One is the thrill that comes with discovering something special.  As a result of having longstanding relationships with gallery owners, he’s often allowed to visit a show before it opens to the public.  This gives him the opportunity, he says, to be “the first to realize” that a piece of art has a quality that sets it apart from all of the others in the show — and he’ll quickly snatch it up before any other collector has even had a chance to see it.

Another benefit is the chance to become friends with some of the artists whose work he collects.  “That enhances the enjoyment of collecting the art,” he says.

In addition, he gets a kick out of showing his collection to people who are lucky enough to visit his house.

And then there’s the enjoyment that he derives from remembering the backstories of how he added pieces to the collection.  “There’s a story to every piece I collect,” he says.  “Every time you see that piece of art, you may remember who you were with, how much you paid for it, and where you were when you bought it.”

As for how the collection affects his mood, he says, “Almost everything I look at that I purchased puts a smile on my face.”  He also notes, though, that some of the pieces have themes that “make you think, make you react” in not entirely pleasant ways.  So, the key issue for him isn’t whether a work of art puts an added bounce in his step, but whether it affects him in one way or another.

“If an art piece doesn’t make you smile or frown or feel angry or happy, it’s not doing its job.  It has to do something.  Otherwise, it’s wallpaper.”

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