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A Trove of Teapots to the Rescue

A small town needs a lifeline and a unique L.A. collection needs a home. The solution brews hope in what was an economic black hole.

June 19, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

SPARTA, N.C. — Patrick Woodie had a lot on his mind that day in April 2003 when his telephone rang. But the caller got his attention.

The authoritative voice at the other end of the line said: "I've got one word for you: teapots."

Back then, Woodie was trying to help things get better in his tiny hometown -- population 1,818 -- where most of the stores on Main Street were closed and way too many people were out of work.

As head of New River Community Partners, a nonprofit redevelopment association headquartered in a recycled sewing machine factory, Woodie was working with the town's leaders to find a way to nurture the few remaining businesses, capitalize on the region's natural beauty and entice travelers on the Blue Ridge Parkway to take a five-mile detour and stay a while.

But teapots?

"I thought it was the dumbest thing I ever heard of," said Frances Huber, a community-minded citizen who lives in the hills near Sparta.

Bob Bamberg, director of the Alleghany Chamber of Commerce, was dumbfounded: "I visualized the old teapot that sits on a shelf in my kitchen and thought, people are going to come to see that?"

Even Mayor John Miller, who had heard just about everything during his 21-year tenure, judged the idea "somewhat way out."

But Sparta had a problem that called for a creative solution.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, so did Sonny and Gloria Kamm.

When they counted their blessings, it came to this: A tidy income from Sonny's earnings as a personal estate planning attorney. A lovely multilevel house in the Encino hills. Three children, all happily married and gainfully employed. Five grandchildren.

And a trove of who knows how many teapots, amassed over two decades. Yet to be inventoried or appraised but definitely in the multimillion-dollar category, it's reputedly the world's largest collection of its kind, consisting of somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 teapots. There are wildly inventive contemporary artworks, rare antiques and historic mass-production models, accompanied by a big batch of related items that the Kamms call "teapot paraphernalia."

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," as Sonny Kamm puts it.

But the time had come for an exit strategy. The Kamms wanted to maintain the objects of their obsession without burdening their children. The challenge was to find a place that wanted all those teapots and would make good use of them.

As the Kamms tell their story, Sonny has "the collecting gene." Gloria, a longtime docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, aids and abets his mania. "Together we are a scary team," she said.

They began buying contemporary glass and became partners in Kurland/Summers, a glass art gallery that operated on Melrose Avenue from 1981 to 1993. In 1985, they moved into a new house, put a few teapots on shelves behind the bar and saw the beginning of another collection.

They snapped up ready-made teapots at art galleries, student shows, antique stores, swap meets, garage sales and on the Internet. They also commissioned one-of-a-kind works from artists. Along with mass-produced teapots in the shape of cars, planes, ships, fruits, vegetables, cartoon characters and heads of state, they acquired unique pieces with surprising themes worked out in unorthodox materials.

"We think of them as sculptures," Gloria Kamm said. "They are also containers of ideas."

Peter Grieve's "Armadillo Teapot," for example, interprets the armor-plated animal in recycled tin. Michael Lucero's "Female Roman Statue," a plaster and ceramic number, has a classical Roman body and a teapot head. Ron Baron's "Dear Mother" is a 56-inch-tall tower of ceramic teacups and plates, metal trays, solidified sugar, polyurethane and plastic clay. Joyce J. Scott's "Testicular Teapot," an organic structure of beaded cloth, neither holds water nor aims to be anatomically correct.

When the collection filled every available shelf and drawer of their home, the Kamms bought a nearby condominium, dubbed it "teapot central" and stocked it with boxes of teapots. They also shared their passion, welcoming hundreds of visitors to their home and lending 250 pieces to "The Artful Teapot," an exhibition of their collection that appeared at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 2003 and is at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis through Sept. 17.

As years passed and the teapots multiplied, the Kamms discussed the possibility of donating their collection to a museum.

"We came to the conclusion fairly early on that no single museum was going to take this collection," Sonny Kamm said. "Small museums can't handle big collections and big general art museums don't want to; they have an obligation to show a variety of material. Museums nowadays are not willing to commit to what and how much they will display unless you self-fund it. If you self-fund it, why not just build your own? If there's a National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, why not a hall of fame for teapots?"

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