Fig. 17. Artist Unknown, Textile, c. 1300, Cotton, 101.92 x 165.1, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Wielgus

Seven centuries after a woven, block-printed, and hand-painted Chimu textile was completed by one or several unknown artisans, it was redescribed by American currency. The typewritten valuation was folded into a note of gratitude acknowledging its receipt, alongside three other items gifted to the University of Iowa by Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Wielgus in 1960. The son of a Chicago manufacturer, Wielgus studied art in college and took over the family business afterwards, developing models for industrially produced furniture. The success of his business, which is still in operation today (“the oldest Model Shop in America”), would depend in part on a capacity to cast novel combinations of materials into customized molds. Elastomers into epoxy, urethane into silicone. 

Fig. 18. Wielgus Correspondence, Image courtesy of University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

The letter does not indicate when Wielgus first acquired the textile, whose interlocking figures of birds and deer against a muted yellow background are separated in turn by borders of zigzagging pale gray and punctual sequences of brown lozenges. They fit together in a syntax of earth tones and wide eyes. It was estimated to be worth $1,000 in the same year that Wielgus’ personal collection went on display at The Museum of Primitive Art in New York. For a tenth of the price he had bought his first piece six years earlier because he wanted “to own something old.” It was an urn, curious to look at, solidly made, and a knock-off.

The desire to feel realness as a kind of acquisition might eventually lead, as it did for Wielgus, to public acclaim for connoisseurship. But being skilled at differentiating between what is valuable and what is fraudulent may not quite fulfill you, even after you have decided what to buy and keep. Living in proximity to the handiwork of another civilization may even tilt your sense of the one that has made your own life possible. Maybe it will grow harder and harder to feel at home as you try to parse achievement from indictment. “Feeling real is more than existing” wrote the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, “it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself, and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation.”

Fig. 19. Textile (detail), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Wielgus
Fig. 20. Colt 1878 Double-Action Frontier Sheriff’s Model Revolver, Decorated by Raymond Wielgus, c.1900; decorated 1983, Art Institute of Chicago.

This is only a guess at why Wielgus took additional steps as a collector and craftsman in the coming decades and became a more concentrated figure of sensitivity and menace. To me, there is a pathos in his need to share the unique traces of his own hand on an object designed to be held; but the result of his labor is a meticulously tricked-out series of firearms.

Working across dozens of Colts and Brownings, Remingtons and Smith & Westons from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Wielgus sought to reclaim what was manufactured and make it a venue for the intensity and intimacy of his own precision. I do not know what he was trying to prove as he inlaid the guns with diamonds, embellished their barrels and cylinders with golden accents, or carved contoured pistol grips from elephant ivory for their stocks. I do know that these guns, chiseled into Art Nouveau, have also become more terrible, even though they can no longer be shot. It is because the number of people they might have threatened, maimed, or killed is trying to become unimportant. And because trying to make them beautiful is a daydream about what, with just the right degree of delicacy, a sensitive hand might do to celebrate how the West was won. Something about this dream is wheeling inside of these damascene assemblages that Wielgus loved because they were already feared.