Why collect American folk art
Before Halloween had passed, Karen and Barnaby Beck started decorating for Christmas. Don’t blame them for bringing out the blinking lights and tinsel so early; they needed the extra time.
Together, the Becks decorated 14 trees for their El Dorado Hills home. Each tree has a theme, pulling from their vast collection of folk art.
“We were totally focused,” said Karen Beck with a laugh. “We know what we want and we just go for it.”
And like their decorations, these trees aren’t your typical holiday totems, but imaginative creations that pay homage to handmade crafts and vintage finds as well as the Christmas spirit.
Topped with a stovepipe hat, the 12-foot tree that greets visitors at the front door holds more than 800 glass ornaments, souvenirs from the couple’s travels. Down a hallway, a nautical-themed tree is covered with real seashells as well as glass mermaids and toy boats; an old fishing net serves as a tree skirt.
In the large kitchen, a “cook’s tree” is decorated with eye candy and glass treats, all depicting favorite foods. In a guest bedroom, a “patriotic tree” holds yards of red, white and blue ribbons, white stars, American flags, cheery little Uncle Sam figurines and antique whirligigs.
Spot likenesses of Sidney, the Beck’s spaniel, among the ornaments on the “dog tree,” surrounded by canine-inspired folk art. Likewise, birds of a feather flock into a guest room for a tree decorated with peacocks, doves, hens, owls, partridges and other winged favorites. A “teddy bear tree” is studded with Steif collectibles from Germany.
That’s a lot of decorating – and that’s just for starters.
Besides, they’re opening their house to hundreds of guests this weekend as part of the annual “Homes for the Holidays” tour.
Hosted by the Assistance League of the Sierra Foothills, the tour features five El Dorado Hills homes decked out with their holiday finest. Proceeds go toward the Assistance League’s programs for children and seniors.
The Becks did their decorating themselves. An eye for creative display and staging is part of their business; they own a commercial interior design company that creates the look and workspace nationwide for such major clients as Visa and Yahoo.
“That allows us to live pretty much anywhere we want,” Barnaby Beck noted.
When they ran out of wall space at their Bay Area home, they went looking for a house with tall ceilings and more room to display their ever-expanding eclectic collections.
“That’s what brought us to Serrano – 12- to 18-foot ceilings,” said Karen Beck. “We needed a bigger house for our collections. (Now), we have a lot more wall.”
They moved into their 8,000-square-foot El Dorado Hills home three years ago. That extra space has been quickly filled with their many finds, which now sport Christmas flourishes.
“We kept everything up and just decorated around it,” she said.
Inside the front door, an 1870 cigar-store Indian holds a Christmas tree instead of his wooden rifle. A life-size carved Great Dane wears a wreath collar. A hand-made Noah’s Ark from Vermont has little Christmas trees on board with its cuddly menagerie. Around the living room, carousel horse heads and other animals each get their own holiday bows and tinsel trim.
You find stuff that talks to you and you want to share that story with others.
Folk art collector Barnaby Beck
Their folk art assortment both dazzles and confounds. These pieces of usable art had purpose, but what? That’s part of their charm, said the Becks.
“Once a year, we go treasure hunting,” said Karen Beck, with such destinations as New England auction houses and out-of-the-way villages with intriguing antique stores. “That’s where we find this stuff.”
“If you’re a collector, you want to show stuff off,” Barnaby Beck said. “I can tell you where everything came from; they each had a life of their own. You find stuff that talks to you and you want to share that story with others.”
Before his current business, Barnaby Beck was a firefighter and paramedic. He got bit by the collecting bug at a young age when he lived next door to a college professor with a passion for Persian rugs.
“In his garage, he had 150 rugs all stacked up,” Beck recalled. “As a young boy, always interested in collecting, it really sparked an interest. … Now, collecting is my passion.”
With the professor as his mentor, Beck started collecting rugs, too; several examples now cover the floors of their Serrano home in a colorful patchwork of patterns and sizes.
Their folk art collection started with a carved eagle head from the U.S.S. Constitution. It now lords over the dining room.
Together, the Becks gravitated to everyday items: unusual trade signs, weather vanes, wood carvings.
“I love the history,” Barnaby Beck said. “If things could talk, just imagine what they’d tell you. That’s what excites me.
“That’s why I like folk art – because of the history behind it,” he explained. “What was it used for, what was their inspiration; each piece has its own story.”
Home for the Holidays
Where: Five homes in El Dorado Hills; start at Pottery World, 1006 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 5 and 6
Admission: $25; $10 children ages 12 and younger
Note: Holiday floral demonstrations will be held at Pottery World as part of the tour. Tour also features local musicians, treats, raffle and silent auction of decorated trees.