I had never seen a Rottweiler until I stopped by a house on Lakeside to meet art consultant Ashley Tatum whose adventuresome direction could be seen inside. But there was Meika to greet me at the door. She was only seven months old and 20 pounds short of her full physique, but impressive nonetheless, formidable, descended, some say, from guard dogs of the Roman Empire, deployed by the army to herd cattle and protect the camp at night. It was a relief to realize that it did not seem to her necessary to protect the house from me, though I was unnerved at first, remembering that Princess Diana used to call Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the second wife of Prince Charles, Rottweiler. Camilla even took to answering the phone, ̎”Rottweiler here.”
Rotties, however, are nicer than Diana supposed, as Ashley Tatum explained. Unless provoked, they have a vast capacity for happy devotion. They do not, however, go in for “immediate and indiscriminate friendships,” according to the American Kennel Club which ought to know. The same could be said, I suspect, of Ashley, though that hidden reserve would take a long time to uncover. She has about her an effervescence that has carried her far in the contradictory world of art, where commerce and culture, society and solitude, the sensational and the sacred collide and, sometimes, converge.
Holding the opposites—that’s what Ashley Tatum does. It explains her early ennui at the Margaret and Trammell Crow Collection where the work was too quiet, too pure in its Asian elegance for her restless imagination. (She had landed there with the aim, nurtured at Westminster College in Missouri, of going for a PhD in art history and a career in museums.) It was essential to her early success, long before the age of 30, running the Gerald Peters Gallery in Dallas. It propelled her out of there and into Carey Ellis Company, a national art advisory firm, as the economy was crashing. It also steadied her when she started her own operation, consulting with clients such as the one whose handsome house by Frank Welch I visited that afternoon.
Brown brick, heavily shaded by greenery, high and overhanging, this home was built originally for John Dabney Murchison, grandson of the oil magnate. “When I got the job,” Welch told me, “I said this house has got to harmonize with other houses in the neighborhood,” a part of Highland Park he calls “the valley of kings.” Conceived as a big place but with only nine rooms, the spaces are generous and welcoming to art. The current owner has supplied quite a lot of that, and Ashley has added her own inspiration, carefully honed once she understood she would never be a great painter herself.
Her touch was apparent in the living room where a recent acquisition by Julian Schnabel from the Dallas Art Fair throws wild, energetic insights across the great expanse to a calming Sam Gummelt, mostly monochromatic white tending to gray, announcing its own strength and durability. Nearby are two early works on paper by Hans Hofmann, surprisingly lyrical in their black and white articulation of human joy.
In this highly personal assemblage whites keep coming back like a song. A large geometric arrangement of squares by Terrell James radiates the dining room. (Ashley had intended it to go where the Schnabel is now, so the Gummelt would have someone to talk to.) A small collage by Dan Rizzie is matched by another at the far end of the foyer. One has stacked sheets of painted wood, thick as a relief. The clarity of white is a soothing counterpoint to the explosion of David Bateses everywhere, suffusing the atmosphere with the power of accumulated knowledge. Bates simply knows more than many artists working today about the inner imperatives of the natural world. “There are no still lifes in this house,” Ashley explained. “It’s man versus nature, man with nature.
Bates explored the primordial swamps and cypress trees near Caddo, the only natural lake in Texas. All that is here in this house. But an unexpected object of his interest is an enormous owl, presiding over the landing and best seen from the top of the stairs. It has a special resonance for Ashley Tatum, who admitted she actually likes animals better than things. She also values owls more for their “predatory skill” than the wisdom for which they’ve been relegated to the status of silent , skeptical observer.
That silence, Ashley pointed out, allows them to fly like stealth bombers, with no noise to alert their prey. They also can operate in darkness because their “acute sense of hearing [can guide them] “to a mouse under three feet of snow based upon the sound of the heartbeat.” I bring this up because to me it unlocks the secret of Ashley Tatum who keeps journals and once noted this from the book Wesley the Owl: “We can overcome enormous obstacles with patience.”
So for all the glamour, drive, and connections cultivated during her association with Jerry Peters and his one-time business partner Ted Pillsbury, there are other, subterranean aspects that inform her life. Horses may consume whatever leisure time she can muster, fox-hunting in Celeste, Texas from fall to spring and leasing half a horse’s time at the Rocking M Stables off Walnut Hill in the summer, but it is on the oddity of the owl that she is the most original and thoughtful. Like the homely, ungainly Rottweiler, this is not an animal you would associate with the affections of a lover of art. But as I said at the beginning, Ashley Tatum knows how to hold the opposites, and she’s not afraid of the shadow side of life.
Marco French, the interior designer with whom Ashley shares an office in the Design District showroom of J. Robert Scott, projects less complexity, but that may be because he’s lived longer and resolved more. When I arrived to see him, he was watching over the hanging of four etchings: finely realized European gardens of the Eighteenth Century in the Chinoiserie style so popular in that era. In Britain it was an enthusiasm that led to the colonization of Hong Kong, a concession in Shanghai and two Opium Wars.
Marco had bought them at East & Orient for friends whose house he was renovating in Waxahachie where he grew up. That was thirty years ago, but they circled back to him again this summer when the family had a sale. In a gesture to the ever-present past, he snapped them up again.
He can see them now from his desk if ever he sits there. It’s a splendid creation of cinnamon laquer and glass that stands free and clear of any detritus an agitated owner might have strewn about. Nearby, near eye level, stretches a long, thick, cream-colored shelf bearing neat stacks of books on art, architecture and accouterments of the good life, plus objects collected during Marco’s travels all over the world.
That was when he worked for Wilson Associates, doing hotels in far-flung places such as India, Pakistan, Japan, Russia and Indonesia. His first interview was there after graduation from the architecture school at UT Austin, and he loved the firm so much and so immediately that he cancelled all other appointments and said yes.
Now Marco is on his own, helping clients such as the one on Lakeside where he and Ashley Tatum now work together. “We have a master plan,” he explained, “to reupholster everything when the dog grows up and stops chewing on rugs.” He was happy to report that some renovation is about to happen. At one point Marco rehung the art and redirected the lights with special attention to how and when they should be dimmed. He edited heavily and spread things out to reveal treasures long obscured by an excess of objects. As for the architecture, “I’ve never seen [anything] so perfectly detailed,” he said. “It’s my favorite Frank Welch house. It has the elegance and stateliness of Lakeside but not the formality of it.”
Marco French is committed to the classical ideal, to symmetry, order and proportion. Every work of art “is either classical or baroque,” said New York art dealer Sidney Janis. Maybe so, Marco replied when I quoted this to him, “but it all begins with the classical.” The conviction that everything flows from the formal vocabulary of Greece and Rome came from his mother, a war bride who moved from Florence to Texas to marry a U.S. soldier she met during World War II when he was stationed on the banks of the Arno, in the land of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. She took her son, Marco Joe French (the middle name is for his American grandfather), to Italy when he was 8, then back at 13, and again after both high school and college graduations. He still has family there and would love to get “the tiniest little house in Florence.”
Marco still has a house in Waxahachie, where his father owned a cotton farm, not unlike Ashley Tatum’s grandfather whose cotton business was in Greenville. The two of them agree that creative people are born not made. They both like to see a mix of styles that represent the taste, sometimes multifaceted, of their clients. Most importantly, they are reliable as civilizing influences in a city that can never get enough of that.
As for art, Ashley Tatum no longer believes, as she once said, that everything has been done. “You have to take a step back,” she observed. “What is art? Painting, new media, performance. [We are] reinterpreting, mixing the media. Reinterpretation is endless.” What we need to avoid, she added is, “historical amnesia,” forgetting what we never took the time to learn. Her aim is to keep that from happening.