featured Spring 2019
During a recent visit, artist Judy Onofrio asks me to open a closet just off the breezeway of her home in Rochester, Minnesota. Inside are six floor-to-ceiling shelves, bursting with pottery she has neatly stacked and arranged just so. There are dozens of pieces by some of her favorite artists. “Reach down and grab that white piece down there,” she says. “That’s one of my favorite pieces by Mac [Warren MacKenzie].” As I carefully place it on the table, I see there are other plates by MacKenzie in the same stack, next to shelves filled with work by other important artists, like Kurt Hoard and Connie Mayeron-Cowles.
We talk for hours, about the M’s new facility and future, our current exhibition 100 Years & Counting and the upcoming craft exhibition, The Good Making of Good Things. We also chat about plans for her new site-responsive installation in the M’s Rauenhorst Court, planned for 2020. “The M is exciting to me,” she enthuses, “especially its collection. I know it has an important history and I want to see more!” But today, I’m not here about the M’s collection; I’ve asked to see hers.
It only takes a second for her to touch a bowl or plate to be reminded of the story attached to each piece. She caught the collecting bug early, and she caught it hard. If you know her work, you know how many bits of glass and metal beads go into her beautiful, riotous sculptures. She collects artwork with the same intensity. Over the years, she has amassed a massive personal collection, with a focus on craft and sculpture made by both regional and national artists, most of whom she counts as friends.
Those personal connections to the artworks make sense; Onofrio has been an important part of the Minnesota arts community since she moved to Rochester in 1967. She has had dozens of exhibitions in that time, but she’s a hand in developing the arts community, too. She served for a time as director of the Rochester Art Center, helped establish Minneapolis Institute of Art’s beloved Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program, and founded the Minnesota Craft Council. Early in her career, she showed at college galleries and museums all over the state. That exposure helped her develop her creative network and put her in touch with the very artists whose work would become part of her growing collection, including her lifelong friend Warren MacKenzie, Jun Kaneko, and Mark Ferris.
She reaches over to grab a few more of her favorite pieces by Sun Koo Yuh, Peter Pincus, and Michael Corney. Onofrio and her husband Burton are surrounded by these objects every day; she still uses many of them. She explains: “It’s not about value, for me. Some of these pieces are quirky, and some are just funny. I don’t keep anything that becomes wallpaper. I keep them, because I get power from them.” And that power is palpable in her own practice. The same sense of obsessive accumulation in the bottle cap sculpture she has by Clarence and Grace Woolsey is echoed in her own largest works, such as Deep Water and Jungle Dance [two pieces in the M’s collection].
Over the years, she’s traded more pieces than she can count, but she has purchased many works, too. She says, “For me, the [craft] community has always been so supportive. We’ve shared ideas and supported each other’s work.” Collecting, for her, is personal. It’s her way of actively supporting artists, so they can continue to make beautiful work.