Alice Frieder Weston is by no means an obscure figure now nor has she been over the many years she and husband, Harris Weston, encouraged and supported the arts and other causes in Cincinnati. Entering her living room, as she says “good morning”, one is greeted by an expanse of Carl Strauss-designed light and airy space and a broad view of the Ohio River. Everywhere is wonderful art and a feeling of peaceful domesticity. She is alone. Harris Weston died in June of 2009. “I miss him terribly,” she says.
Weston is not only a discriminating collector of art, but she is also an artist in her own right. A 2003 bio by the Contemporary Arts Center refers to her as an environmental photographer who reveals hidden aspects of the natural and man made worlds. It cites, among her other projects, photographs of prehistoric Native American earthworks in the Ohio Valley, especially in relation to the cycles of the sun and the moon. One such exhibit was at the Cincinnati Museum Center, and the other currently travels.
Early on she created a large collection of microphotographs of crystals. “My inspiration came when my daughter brought home a photograph of a cell. It looked like a Dubuffet that I owned. So then I put everything I could under the microscope to see what it might look like on a larger scale. A chemist I worked with had access to a lab at the University of Cincinnati. He brought over a lot of different chemicals, which all looked like salt and pepper. I found that crystals, which had an internal structure, were, under polarized light and in color, the most exciting. With a camera and heating unit attached to the microscope, the crystals, only one molecule thick, appeared to grow. As they went through their phase changes, I photographed the most interesting series of them. I created hundreds of beautiful slides in that way.”
Later they were used in multimedia productions by the Cincinnati Ballet Company’s “EtCetera” (1973); by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Schoenberg’s “Pelleas and Melissande” conducted by Thomas Schippers, using six live-operated slide projectors (1974); and by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center in “Inner Journey” (1987 – 1989).
In 1997, The Museum Center published the award-winning book, Great Houses of the Queen City: 200 Years of Historic and Contemporary Architecture in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Weston photographed the homes, while architectural historian, Walter E. Langsam authored the book. In 2006, the Ohio Historical Society published Architecture in Cincinnati: An Illustrated History of Designing and Building an American City, authored by Sue Ann Painter, for which Weston photographed commercial and institutional buildings. In March of 2010, an expanded digital collection of her photographs was announced by the University of Cincinnati. It contains over 1400 images, Alice Weston, Great Houses of Cincinnati and is freely accessible to Internet users.
She has participated on many boards including The Cincinnati Art Museum and its Acquisitions Committee; the American Classical Music Hall of Fame; and the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati. She encouraged the Aronoff Center of the Performing Arts, opened in 1995 and designed by Cesar Pelli, to include a visual arts component, and thus the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery was created there. The Westons also contributed to the building fund and director’s chair of the Contemporary Arts Center.
Weston was born in the Philippine Islands and had a peripatetic childhood with alternating two-year stints between the islands and Cincinnati, where she eventually attended Walnut Hills High School. “Before I was thirteen, I crossed the Pacific nine times. In those days, we crossed by boat – those beautiful art deco boats – and it took six weeks.” She adds that “my father was in the tobacco business. They bought the tobacco from the natives, manufactured cigars there and sold them in the states. Four of the five brothers took turns going over, because it was too hot to stay any length of time. On the way back from there, I had five months vacation, and on the way there I had to make up a couple of months of school.”
The Frieder brothers ran the S. Frieder & Sons Cigar Factory, started by their father around 1910 as a retail business in New York City and later expanded to a distributorship in Cincinnati. The senior Frieder’s next move was to go to the Philippines in 1918 and buy cigars to sell in America. Discovering it was cheaper to make the cigars, they created a facility in Manila, called the Helena Cigar Factory that made as many as 250 million cigars a year with brands such as Tiona and El Toro, selling in the United States at two for a nickel. The factory employed hundreds of women, and according to an article in Cigar Aficionado, getting the tobacco to the factory was an arduous trip, as there were no bridges, and rafts made of bamboo were used to ford the streams during the long journey.
Weston had two sisters, four and eight years older than she. “I do remember the two of them in the next room, and I had a room of my own. There was a closet on my side and one on their side with about a foot of free space at the top of the closet, and when they were talking and didn’t want me around, I used to climb over the top and join them. I was never allowed to go to the dances down on the tennis court, which was modified for dancing, because I was too young.” She did spy on the parties, however.
She loved living in the Philippines. “We lived right in Manila, and then during the war, the Japanese commandeered our house, because it was just slightly higher topographically than the surrounding land. The Japanese general set up his headquarters there. Before the war, the Philippines were still a protectorate of the United States. In 1935 it became a commonwealth and started to get independent, which was supposed to happen in 1946 but actually occurred earlier because of the war. As a result of their still being a commonwealth, a lot of American army personnel were also there at that time. MacArthur and Eisenhower, who was then a colonel under MacArthur, were stationed there.
“The Eisenhowers used to come to our house to play bridge with my parents. I remember Mamie combing her bangs in my mother’s bedroom when she was not at the bridge table. There was one dinner party that included both the Eisenhowers and MacArthurs, but the guest of honor was the high commissioner of the Philippines, Weldon Jones. MacArthur was very authoritarian, but he did recognize protocol,” she says with a chuckle.
“My father used to send cigars to the Eisenhowers and MacArthurs every year from the late thirties throughout the war, and every year he would get thank-you notes. I remember one from MacArthur saying something about being grateful to the American Indians for introducing white men to tobacco.
An historic and courageous effort, started in 1938 by the Frieder brothers to protect Jewish families during the war, has been documented in the 2003 book, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror, written by Frank Ephraim, one of the refugees. The program was propelled through some difficult political currents by the Frieders, as it ran against prevailing American policy. It did require that applicants be in one of 14 approved occupations, including cigar making. 1,200 Jewish refugees were thus welcomed to Manila in a way they were not by many other countries, including America at the time. “There was a larger plan to have some go to Mindanao, which was a southern province, but by the time that was passed, it was too late to get anybody out.”
After finishing high school, Weston went off to Vassar and then worked in Cincinnati for three years for The National Conference of Christians and Jews (founded in 1927 and now called The National Conference for Community and Justice). In 1949, she married Harris Weston. (Here I would like, as writer, to uncharacteristically interject that I saw the Westons at a few small social occasions in the latter years of Harris’s life, and I was particularly impressed with the kind and warm way Alice looked after Harris, making sure he always had everything he wanted to eat or drink before going off for brief spells to chat with other people and then check back.) Like her own Frieder family, the Westons had three daughters.
She pauses when being asked if she thinks art presently being produced locally is good: “I don’t know how to define good art,” she says emphatically. “Like Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, talking about pornography, ‘I know it when I see it’ . . . I take an art historical view, and I try to find out the main thrust of art in a particular time. I’m more interested in context than technique. I think intention is very important in relation to what’s going on in the art world and the regular world. Mainly, I am interested in contemporary art, so my comments expose that bias. The reason is that contemporary artists reflect what is going on in my time. Artists have a special sensitivity to the time in which they work, and art is a clue, in code of course, to their perceptions.”
The Westons over the years amassed a vastly impressive collection, the bulk of which will be left to The Cincinnati Art Museum. “I have given my two daughters (one daughter has died) and six grandchildren a chance to choose one modern work and one tribal piece. I felt it was necessary to give it to the CAM, because historically they have never bought contemporary art, and my collection fills in a huge gap that they missed.” So what considerations were important to Alice and Harris Weston in the process of collecting?
“In buying art,” she continues. “You can buy it with the long term view of a collection. Or, you can buy it to decorate where you live. It’s better to know which approach you are taking, otherwise you waste your money. If you buy for decoration, a painting which looks good with the couch goes over it; if you buy for a collection, you buy the painting for itself and the couch goes under it.” However, she adds, “if you are buying for decoration, buy what you like, and you can’t miss for a while, but eventually you will tire of it. If you are buying art for appreciation, don’t buy what you like. First educate yourself as to what is going on in the art world, and buy what you don’t like. Probably you aren’t as informed as you will be later on, and you will grow into it. Eventually you will like it forever. Also,” she says, “a collection should have some unifying theme, whatever it is, and your ongoing purchases will deepen aspects about it.”
Weston says her interest in contemporary art, started with an exhibit at what was then The Museum of Non-Objective Art in New York City, the first site of Solomon Guggenhiem’s collection, housed in an automobile showroom on East Fifty-fourth Street. “It was all Kandinskys. That exhibit is now the core of the collection at the Guggenheim Museum. I felt like it was a whole new world. Later, in Cincinnati, the Contemporary Arts Center, which at that time was in the basement of the Cincinnati Art Museum, had a show of all Jackson Pollocks, maybe 20 large ones all around the room. They were on loan from the collection of Benjamin Heller. At the time I realized I didn’t have to make art. All I had to do was buy it. Of course, by that time it was already too late to buy Abstract Expressionism, so I resolved to go to New York and buy 20 large canvasses, for $500 each, of the very next movement to come along. That movement was Pop Art.
“Luckily, while trying to acquire a Joseph Albers painting, the Pace Gallery, with whom I was dealing, said they didn’t have any Albers at the time, but they sent me the folded canvas shirts from Claus Oldenburg instead. It was Pop Art, the very next movement, and it was $500! It wasn’t personal. It just sort of sat there. Because of my original idea of acquiring the next movement, I did buy it, and I grew into it.
“New movements were appearing every year. I continued to buy early, when they were not expensive. My collection now consists of the major movements of the 40’s and 50’s when American art had seized the dominance from Europe after the war. I was very lucky.
“The times are different now,” she reflects. “Art of all movements is being done, but there are still trends. Recent movements have included political art, and now most recently, street art. The Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati has for years brought us the best in contemporary art. If you are interested in the field, that is the place to go and to keep going. I just realized the importance of street art the other day. It occurred to me that it is similar to the upsets throughout the Arab world, in that it gives constructive expression to the underprivileged who don’t have a voice. The CAC has brought us some good street art with Shepherd Fairey’s wall drawings and Keith Haring’s work.”
Building an important and cohesive collection is one aspect of buying art, but like many other collectors, Weston’s main pleasure in the pursuit has been having the art an integral part of their daily lives. “Living with a good art collection has informed all aspects of my life, including my own art, which centers on environmental art. Having absorbed, by osmosis, its continuing lessons, has been a real privilege,” she concludes.
– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin
This article was very enlightening. As an artist moving to Cincinnati from Philadelphia I find it hard to find not only other like minded artist but collectors of art as well. Where do people like this congregate? I think there is a lot to be gained in knowing people like Mrs. Weston. Her story is very unique like all artists’ stories are.
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