Their story isn't exactly Shakespearean - there were no shipwrecks or clever disguises - but stars must have crossed somewhere along the line for Andy Weiner and Sonja Hansard, Madison's first couple of literature and art.
Weiner grew up in White Plains, N.Y., haunting the jazz clubs and museums of nearby New York City. If you know the grown-up he became, you can imagine the young man: intense, watchful. He seems like a quiet sort, but the eyes give him away. There is something churning under the surface there - a cascade of thoughts about words, music and pictures that can only be contained so long. He is an absent-minded professor in training.
An ardent reader of fantasy fiction - he had first editions of all the Tolkien novels, until his mother gave them away - Weiner studied his way backward in time, settling in with Spenser's "Faerie Queene" for his Ph.D. In 1969, he was hired as an English professor at UW-Madison.
Hansard was born on a farm outside Wichita Falls, Texas, and got her early education in a two-room schoolhouse. But she had an eye - and ears - for beauty. She dreamed of being an architect, until she hit geometry. In college, she acted in Shakespeare and discovered modern art, working in a gallery in her spare time. Artists like Rene Magritte visited her Houston campus.
In 1972, Hansard arrived at UW for graduate school. She was working on Renaissance literature, one of Weiner's specialties. They met in passing, but both had other things on their mind. Hansard's beloved brother was dying. Weiner's wife had left him with three young children. They needed to talk, but not about Shakespeare.
Enter mutual acquaintance Robert Kimbrough, an English professor, who saw in these two the possibility of a marriage of true minds. He played what Sonja calls "Beatrice and Benedick" games with them, talking one up to the other, and vice versa.
They were married Jan. 1, 1974.
"It just sort of took," says Sonja Hansard-Weiner, understating the obvious. There is a trace of Southern softness in her voice, a gentle counterpoint to Andy's East Coast honk.
They hold hands as they tell the story, 30 years later.
Their first home was on Orton Court. It was a tight squeeze - their daughters were sharing a room, with less than peaceful results - and after a few years they started looking for something bigger.
The B.B. Clarke house at 1150 Spaight was vast and grand, the only house of its size in that neighborhood that hadn't been chopped up into apartments. It was also well beyond their price range. Which did not, of course, prevent them from falling in love.
Sonja recalls the look on Andy's face, how she could see the wheels spinning in his brain as he counted square feet. She was bewitched by the winding wooden stairwell.
They spent three weeks coming back to look longingly at the 1899 building, knowing full well that houses in the area always fetch their asking price or higher. Then one day, Andy got a call from the owner saying, "make me an offer."
There had been another offer on the table, but the would-be buyers made the mistake of listing all the things they didn't like about the house. Feathers ruffled, the owner decided he would rather sell it to the people who loved every old-fashioned nook and cranny of the place.
They moved their books to the new house in a red wagon.
A year after the move into the house on Spaight Street, Sonja was hired as a professor at MATC and Andy got a research grant to study the connection between the visual art and literature of the Renaissance - imagery and more imagery. Whenever possible, they packed up the kids and traveled the country, going from museum to museum.
Five years into the marriage, Andy and Sonja started planning a summer sabbatical in England, sans kids. It was a research trip that would double as a second honeymoon, since the first had been spent at Disney World with three kids in tow.
As it turned out, they would take four children on their second honeymoon. When Sonja discovered she was pregnant, they knew they couldn't bring the baby and leave the other kids at home. The trip for two was now a major expedition. Where some would have scaled back their plans, the Weiners decided to add 10 days in Paris to the itinerary.
In France, they discovered a gallery scene completely unlike the snooty, untouchable New York art world. Passion was the only entree required: You didn't have to be a Rockefeller just to walk through the door. How could they resist buying a piece or two or 20?
Back in Madison, they found themselves the proud owners of a lot of art. This was 1980, and the house had recently been added to the National Register. Their neighbor Whitney Gould, a restoration advocate who at that time was on the City Landmarks board, suggested they show off the house and the art at the same time by turning 1150 Spaight into a gallery. That way they would also be eligible for federal assistance, should they ever need to restore the place.
Always eager to share their obsessions, the Weiners said why not? On Thanksgiving weekend, Spaightwood Galleries opened its doors.
The first show was all Miro.
The breakthrough show was a Miro protégé, Joan Gardy Artigas.
When Andy and Sonja fall for an artist, they fall hard. They bought a lot of Artigas on that first trip to Paris - beginning with a blue woman with a pregnant belly - and just kept adding to the collection. In 1982, Spaightwood Galleries held the first one-person show of Artigas' work in North America. They sold 28 pieces.
On his next trip to the United States, Artigas came to Madison to meet the people who had moved so much of his art. A friendship was founded - that's an Artigas sculpture in the front yard, and there are smaller pieces throughout the house - and the artist came back to Madison for a stint as artist-in-residence at UW.
Through Artigas they met Claude Garache, who led them to Manel Lledos, and on to Gérard Titus-Carmel. Suddenly Andy and Sonja were players in the international art scene, with intimate personal contacts. When they go to Paris, they stay with Garache.
The most expensive piece they ever sold was a Titus-Carmel painting that went for $37,000. When the buyer's new wife decided she didn't like it, they bought it back. It now lists for $70,000.
Not all of the artists they collect are friends of the Weiners - many of them have been dead for centuries. On their Web site (which went online in 2000, expanding the gallery's clientele around the world) there are almost as many Old Masters as there are artists born after 1800. It's not unusual to see names like Rembrandt, Goya and Durer mixed in with the Picassos, Miros and Matisses in a Spaightwood exhibition.
In 24 years, the collection has grown from a few hundred pieces to approximately 9,000 prints, drawings and paintings. They show about 1,000 of those every year.
The art will be the last thing to go.
Andy and Sonja will pack it themselves, along with miles of books, for the drive across the country to Upton, Mass. That's where the new Spaightwood Galleries is currently being fashioned out of an old church with 25-foot ceilings. It is a space that cast a spell on them.
"Last August, we walked into 120 Main St. in Upton, and Andy's eyes got bigger," Sonja recounts. "We looked at one another and it all came back - that that was how it happened before - and we knew that we were hooked. So I'm giving up my staircase for a wooden ceiling, and he's giving up his house for lots of open space."
The move will bring them closer to their children and grandchildren, making life easier for everyone as Andy and Sonja get older. Practicality is only part of the impetus, though. This is another grand lark for the proprietors of Spaightwood Galleries, driven by their passion for art, architecture and each other.
In June, Sonja will be 60 and Andy will be 61. Andy is retiring from UW after 35 years as a professor of English literature. Sonja is saying goodbye to a rich and varied career at MATC, teaching literature, writing and art.
"It's been such a wonderful way to turn that terrifying decade on its head and say 'you're not going to get me!'" says Sonja. "This is kind of a choose-your-own-adventure. It's the first year of the rest of our lives."
The last exhibition at the Madison incarnation of Spaightwood Galleries - a retrospective of sorts called "A Few of Our Favorite Things (And Some New Ones)" - will be on display at least through [October 17].
The final moving date is still up in the air. Turning a church built in 1874 into a home and gallery is no small task. Besides, they are still waiting for the right buyer for their historic 3,600-square-foot, eight-bedroom Madison love nest, with optional Artigas sculpture in the front yard.
Contact Amanda Henry at email@example.com or 252-6188.