What happens when enjoyment becomes passion

It’s a little difficult to imagine Jim Kolva ’68 and Pat Sullivan living in a 1950s ranch-style house. Even on Spokane’s South Hill. But they did. And all its walls were painted Sears ivory linen.

“We added color by furniture and art,” Kolva says.

But ranch-style houses have their limits. Particularly when it comes to housing large eclectic collections of mostly ceramic art. So Kolva and Sullivan moved their art downtown.

Now they live in a 3,700-square-foot loft with a massive steel entry door and a 30×12-foot purple wall. It took five coats to get it right, Kolva says. “Aubergine is really difficult.”

And then it took Kolva and Sullivan three months to muster the nerve to hang anything on it.

Which is understandable. The wall is lovely, large-and intimidating. You’re either going to get it right or you’re not.

Of course they got it right. The wall is now home to a number of paintings, including one by Gaylen Hansen, a former Washington State University faculty member. Although the loft contains creations by artists from wherever Kolva and Sullivan have traveled, their focus has been on Northwest artists. Many of them are either alumni or faculty of WSU.

And it’s all just right. Tasteful and sophisticated, definitely. But also funny. One comes to mind of a poodle shorn to resemble a topiary garden by Robin Dare (’86 M.F.A.).

And did I mention comfortable? You’d think a space this size with all this art-Kolva estimates they’ve collected around a thousand pieces, from cups to large figures-would be like living in a museum. Beautiful and fascinating. But hushed and austere. And hardly liveable.

But this is no museum. Everything fits. Everything is a reflection of Kolva and Sullivan’s tastes. Everything lives here. Including the giant ceramic rabbit lounging on a beam above the kitchen. Or the big ceramic bear head, by Marilyn Lyoshir (’79 M.F.A.) in a rear alcove.

Or the urn by Rudy Autio (’52 M.F.A.), ceramically reminiscent of Matisse. Or the painting by fine arts emeritus faculty member Pat Siler of a man gazing in wonder at shoes suspended in a night sky.

Sometimes, says Kolva, commenting on what it’s like to live in such a collection, “you go through it and really don’t respond to the art work, it’s [a] daily routine. Other times you see a piece, think back on the artist or how you got it, or maybe a trip that you were on when you got the work.

“Sometimes it’s just amazement at the thought process that went into it, how the artist conceived that.”

Kolva and Sullivan’s loft was originally the service building for Wells Chevrolet, built in 1926. New cars were unloaded from trains on the elevated railroad tracks right next to the building. The cars got their final service and prep before being moved across the alley bridge-now their living room-to the showroom. The building’s most recent commercial incarnation was as Lambert Candy Company. The loft was the warehouse for the candy and tobacco distributor.

Kolva and Sullivan bought the building in 1997. But it wasn’t easy. Banks did not exactly line up to lend them money. A former car dealership, and you want to live there, you say? Okay.

Oh, and did I mention the railroad? At the time, the railroad still owned the land the building sat on. Part of the lease agreement was that terms could change with 30 days notice.

But this space was meant to be. In a fortuitous act, Congress authorized the railroads to sell their land. A little creative financing, and it was a done deal.

Although the loft is presumably the showcase, there’s a lot more to the building. Kolva has developed the additional space into two art galleries on the street level and five apartments.

Kolva bought his first piece of art from a fraternity brother at WSU. About the time he graduated, he got a letter inviting him to join the military. He became a navigator on a C-130 and was off to discover the world. He spent considerable time over the Thai-Laotian border and in Europe, where he pursued his growing interest in art, picking up indigenous sculpture as well as contemporary art in Bangkok and frequenting the Sunday art market on Bayswater Road in London. Kolva was hooked.

His travels also piqued his interest in design and urban landscape, how the “whole thing ties together, buildings, and how buildings are placed, and how they relate to each other and how the artwork living there is produced.”

Kolva makes his living as an environmental and architectural restoration consultant.

When he returned to Spokane, he started haunting the Western Art Show, pressing an artist friend, Debbie Copenhauer, who had attended WSU, for aesthetic advice and encouragement. A couple of Copenhauer’s pieces, relatively conventional in this hugely eclectic collection, but beautiful, now reside in Kolva’s loft.

Meanwhile, the collecting bug had also bitten Sullivan, and as things go, the two collectors met and they joined their collections in matrimony in 1983.

“We both had the same enjoyment,” says Kolva, “and I guess it grew into a passion.”