ART ON THE WALL: Tom Proehl and James LL Morrison on Finding Art in Unexpected Places

Look Around You: Art is Where You Choose to Find it A conversation on collecting between Emma Berg and Kristoffer Knutson, partners in, and collectors James LL Morrison and Tom Proehl, Executive Director of the Minnesota State Arts Board.


For both James and Tom, surrounding themselves with artwork comes naturally. Just back from a trip to India, James is taking the time to enjoy the finer things these days—friends, family, and art. And, thanks to his role at the State Arts Board, Tom encounters the breadth of Minnesota’s artistic talent daily. Kristoffer and I were given the honor of conversation and cocktails at their home.

mplsart: Is the collection you have in your home now a representation of your lives together, or do you each buy work on your own?

Tom Proehl: I would say absolutely it represents our lives together, the last twenty-two years. With every piece we can point out exactly when it came into our lives.

James LL Morrison: And what event marks it. Each piece has a special resonance, too. For us, it’s really what marks time, and what we were doing at different times in our lives.

Tom: As you can see, we are very eclectic [in our taste]. It’s all about what we love and it’s about what speaks to us at the time. I don’t look at the floor in this house; I look at the walls. Every day, there’s something new to find. If I sit in that chair [he gestures], depending on the time of day, the painting there changes (pointing to the Pauline Ziegen painting).

James: When I’m around art, [the question is whether] I would want to live with it. For me, it’s really exciting when we get a new piece. You just sit there for days, and you look at it, and you’re, like, “I can’t believe that’s in my house.”

mplsart: We started the Art on the Wall series as a way to break down some of the myths of collecting. The idea being, if we showcase a variety of collectors it would inspire others to collect. Do you think your collection inspires others?

James: With our own friends; they’ve seen our collection and are impacted by it. It’s like, “Oh my god. Where did you get this painting?” and we tell them a garage sale or an estate sale and they’re surprised. Our collection has opened up the idea that you can find art in unlikely places if you choose to recognize it as art. It has inspired a lot of our friends to look into collecting art. Even to just to go to the MCAD art sale to see what they can find. Then they get bit by that same bug and want to expand their art collection.

mplsart: Do you think that garage sales and the art sale are starting points to another level of collecting?

James: Yes, it is a good entry point.

Tom: It’s a good entry point because I think a lot of people feel they can’t afford to be a collector. And, so when you go and see it (the MCAD Art Sale) and buy work you also get to support a young artist. Then to be able to say, “I own this amazing piece” and it’s from a young artist and they are able to follow their career.

mplsart: Often is seems that collectors move from prints or editions into original works. Is that the path you two followed?

Tom: A lot of the stuff that I used to carry around with me were prints, Walker Art Center prints from artists whose work I aspired to own, but couldn’t afford, such as Jim Dine. It was James who turned me on to original works. He opened up my mind to just saying, “Look around you!”

James: I bought my first painting when I was seven years old from artist Beverly Hass. It was at a local art show [in North Dakota]. She was so flattered that a seven-year-old wanted to buy her painting. Both my parents collected so I understood the whole idea of having something that somebody else created. That’s always been really important to me.

mplsart: Where else have you found pieces for your collection?

James: We found the painting over the fireplace on the street in New York, in the ‘80s. We dragged it home on the subway

Tom: It was in the dumpster! It weighs about 300 pounds; the frame is all plaster.

James: It actually turns out to be an artist from the Hudson Valley School.

Tom: One of our first places in New York was a second floor apartment above artist Richard Artschwager, the ’60s Pop Artist. When he saw the painting he knew [what it was] immediately.

mplsart: You have not only an eclectic collection with regard to style, but also with regard to artists—from NYC street artists to a 16th century Flemish painting to work by MCAD graduate, Bethany Kalk. There’s even a piece by Paul Cadmus here. Where did you find that?

Tom: [The] Paul Cadmus was James’ first big purchase. He called his parents and got a loan for it.

James: I bought the drawing in 1999. When I called my parents my father said, “You bought your first painting when you were seven. I can’t say no to you.” So I took out a loan and it took me years to pay it off. His work was being exhibited at the Metropolitan and there was a painting that he did during World War II as part of the WPA project. It was called The Fleet is In and it was considered so scandalous at the time that it was confiscated by the US Government. It ended up hanging in the US Naval Academy in the officers’ dining room. It had been considered degenerate art because it was these soldiers with floosies. That’s what made his career. Anyway, I fell in love with his stuff and I found out where he was showing and I ended up getting this piece.

mplsart: What is it about this piece that made you say, “I’m going to take out a loan for this?”

James: I think for me, personally, what the work represented was that Paul Cadmus essentially documented the gay history of the last century which I didn’t know anything about. And gay history had been so brushed under the carpet that I didn’t even know that this existed. You go back and you look at his paintings and you see what he was doing in the ‘20s and the ‘30s. To find that history, for me, was really profound.

mplslart: You can see that the work you surround yourselves with is about the places that you are in, the experiences that you have. It’s a very personal connection.

Tom: Looking around our house right now there are a lot of Minnesota artists, because that’s where we are. And, look at them, there are some amazing pieces. I travel across the state a lot for my position, and everywhere I go I’m amazed by what people are doing. With the large Rebecca Silus painting, I was driving by Gallery 360 and I saw it in the window. I stopped my car and I bought two pieces that day.

About the series’ creators and Emma Berg is the director and founder of, which she first launched in 2005. Emma’s genuine enthusiasm for the creative culture within our wonderful city keeps her out at art events weekly, supporting artists and galleries alike. Kristoffer Knutson is the proprietor of the Lyndale Avenue boutique ROBOTlove, a design store featuring limited edition artist toys, clothing, books, prints and magazines. He joined as a partner in 2006.