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The furnishings in Pete Cecere’s Reston home include antique chests from Ecuador, armoires from the Pyrenees region of Spain, and a rolltop desk from Bolivia—all typical acquisitions for a retired foreign service officer, which is what Cecere is. What is extraordinary, though, is everything else Cecere has amassed during his travels: His home is literally crammed with folk art, primitive art, kitsch—whatever you call it, the clutter includes several life-size papier-mâché skeletons, a pair of “dog stirrups,” and a portrait of a winking Jesus Christ.
“Don’t ask me who does the dusting,” says Cecere. “Anybody who comes in here and asks how I do the dusting will not get a second invitation. This is art, baby.”
When Cecere was growing up in Brooklyn, he used to collect and display toy models and trains. Years later, during twenty six years of service with the U.S. Information Agency, he became a passionate collector of folk art from Latin America, Spain, and the U.S. His retirement, upon which he exchanged his work uniform, a Mickey Mouse tie and bluejeans, for something more comfortable (no tie), has allowed him time to start unpacking, cataloging, and displaying fourteen tons of art—some shipped from his latest post in Mexico City, the rest of which spent the last several years in storage.
“I need a bigger house,” he says. “Where am I going to put all this shit?”
Cecere organizes all his “shit” by categories which include religious art, miniatures, Adam and Eve paintings and carvings, ironwork, and “funky stuff.” There’s a separate category for his own carvings, which he usually roughs out with a chain saw, finishes with a chisel, then paints with acrylic. One of these is a locomotive he carved during a tour of duty in Quito, Ecuador. Drawing inspiration from an earlier stint in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when Che Guevara was roaming the jungle, Cecere titled it Pardon Me Che, Is This the Cochabamba Choo Choo? He’s also sculpted an Abraham Lincoln, who he says is a favorite subject for amateur woodcarvers because he’s straight up and down, no tricky cutouts or curves.
But most of Cecere’s collection consists of found treasures, objects that “just jump out and say, “Buy me.’ ” His latest acquisition is a dog’s head mounted on a plaque with a bird in its mouth. “It’s so outrageous,” he comments. “I’ll never find anything like it again.”
“My motive for buying,” Cecere says, “is whimsy. Does it grab you, do you want to live with it and look at it in the morning? I don’t buy to sell. I want to build a house, a house built for art,” he says.
“I always wanted to do a house,” he says, “and when you walked in it you would never forget it until the day you died.”
Few visitors to Cecere’s home will forget his bathroom. That’s where the winking Jesus hangs. The image shows Christ crowned with thorns, blood streaming down his face where the thorns cut into the flesh. As you move to left or right of the picture, his right eye “winks.” The painting is one of Cecere’s favorites: “It makes fun of official religion, which frequently needs making fun of, as do most other stuffed-shirt organizations,” he explains. “It’s an object of reverence to the people who make it, and in some senses there’s a mockery involved, but then again everyone needs to have their balloon punctured once in a while….”
Cecere sees himself as a kindred spirit of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., whose North American folk art has been acquired by the National Museum of American Art. “He was kind of a sick collector, as I am,” Cecere says. “He once said, “I buy impulsively and compulsively.’ Well, that describes me.”
To illustrate his point, Cecere relates a story about the time he spotted a game board at an outdoor fair near Quito. Two men were playing a game of chance on a plywood game board, using two wooden dice. The board and dice had been painted with symbols—a frog, a devil, a heart, a sun, a snake, and a star. Cecere had no idea how much the set was worth, so he asked its owner how much money he made in a day, then offered him about five times that amount, buying the set for $35.
That game board, along with several other pieces from Cecere’s collection, is currently on loan to a touring exhibition, “Visiones del Pueblo: The Folk Art of Latin America,” which is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Oct. 10. That sort of recognition enhances the satisfaction that Cecere’s collection brings him. But every so often, his holdings become oppressive. In 1990, when he was leaving for a tour of duty in Mexico, he swore that he would not collect any more. He sold several thousand items at a “sale of a lifetime” auction. At the time, he says, he felt that the collection was “beginning to define me….I didn’t want to become a one-note samba.”
Six months after the sale, he was writing to friends from Mexico: “I’ve found wonderful stuff, absolutely wonderful….”