Fields of Steel – A sculpture garden blooms in Katonah
Two birds about to take flight. An Asian-inspired gate. Snoopy on a rocket ship.
Those are just a few of nearly 150 sculptures found on the property of Donald and Susan Bittker’s Katonah home. The couple has lived there since 1980, but the collecting started in 1996 on a trip out west. At a pit stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Donald wandered into an artist co-op, they purchased their first steel sculpture, and they’ve been collecting ever since.
Donald is a semi-retired attorney and Susan a retired research scientist. When their two children left for college, they began traveling more, and now the majority of their trips do focus on looking at and buying sculptures. They enjoy going to artist open-studio days, have a number of shows they’ve been attending for decades, and note that at one blacksmith conference they were two of only a few attendees who are collectors and not makers. “At this point we have taken some courses to get an understanding of some of the techniques that go into creating a sculpture,” Susan says.
The couple’s collecting involves getting to know—and often becoming friendly with—the artists whose works they buy. “Being friends with the artists allows us to get a better perspective on their work,” says Susan. She says they love learning the backstory of a piece and a sense of the artist. They note that sculptor George Manus, who sculpted the Snoopy on a rocket ship, has a great sense of humor which they then see in his art. “Art has two parts: the concept and the execution,” Donald says. He notes that while a critic may have written about an artist or a piece of work to offer “a road map,” he always tries to discover what the artist’s intent was in his or her work.
Their home, on almost seven acres of land, currently has sculptures by 23 artists. All of the artists are American, with the bulk of them being from the southwest and northeast. “Many years ago, a gallery owner asked if we collect wide or deep,” Donald recalls. They’re in the deep category—they collect a large number of pieces by a small number of artists. But within that definition they aim to stay away from multiples of the same work. “We want a unique piece of art,” he says.
Their sculptures run the gamut from abstract to clear representations, from sculptures comprised of a number of pieces to the mammoth gate-like sculpture. Donald says the “found object” works are generally made from components that come from scrapyards or farming instruments. And he notes within the found object category there are sculptures in which a number of pieces are put together and ones he terms “unmanipulated,” where the found object stands on its own.
“We have works of varying level of sophistication,” Donald says, noting some of the more whimsical pieces found in their collection. “I’m not looking for a certain level of sophistication; I’m just looking for something I like,” he says. He also notes “complexity exists on many levels.” Some of their pieces make political statements regarding the Native American experience, and there are also many animal sculptures. Included in the collection are pieces by an artist who was named a MacArthur genius, one whose work was included in The Whitney Biennial show, and a sculptor whose works are also found in a courtyard at Harvard.
“We’re probably approaching completion,” Susan says regarding the collecting. Donald laughingly notes, “Our resources are limited,” and as they’re in their early 70s they realize their travel may slow down. The couple are in the process of spreading the sculptures out and rearranging them. They’ll decide the layout; they don’t work with a landscape designer but do have people they work with to move the bigger works onto the property. “If possible, I’d like to have a clean line of sight for every major piece so it can be seen and photographed without having other pieces in the field of view,” says Donald. The couple plans to group their steel horses into what Susan calls a “horse field.”
The Bittkers say passersby are welcome to pull into their Girdle Ridge property during daylight hours and enjoy their sculptures. “If we’re around, we love to talk to people about the pieces,” Donald says.