It’s a cold rainy day, but inside the Hopewell home of David Sellers — one adds one’s shoes to the orderly rows of footwear on the porch before entering — warmth radiates. The Craftsman-style house, with dark wood paneling and columns and stained glass windows, is filled with treasures: a Nakashima dining table and chairs (Sellers recounts visiting the architect turned furniture designer in his Bucks County studio in 1986, selecting the wood, and watching him make the drawing), kilims, quilts, Mission chairs and antique wooden chests, a wooden horse and a Buddha, and of course books. The fireplace is surrounded by Mercer tiles that Sellers fit within the original woodwork without cutting the tiles. He notes the depiction of bees in the tiles — Sellers and his wife, Kathy, have been keeping bees for 30 years. “We raise them for the honey,” he says.
The bees, like everything else in the house, represent a collection. A collection, Sellers says, is something you become interested in and passionate about and assemble in a way that allows for comparison. “It requires a focus,” he says. “A collection is something you build carefully over many years and define what you need to add to make it better.”
Sellers’ collection of photographs of the Cuban Revolution, for example, are “pieces to a puzzle you can never complete,” he says. The photographs are on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, December 5 through January 28, with a reception and panel discussion, “The Cuban Revolution as seen from 2015,” on Tuesday, December 8, 4:30 to 6 p.m.
The photographs were made by known and unknown photographers, mostly Cubans, including Alberto Korda, Fidel Castro’s personal photographer, best known for his iconic photo of Che Guevara. Subjects include Fulgencio Batista, the elected president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944 and dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution; Fidel Castro and his family; and Nikita Khrushchev and his family. This is the first time these photographs — 80 silver gelatin prints made during the 1950s and 1960s, many bearing the stamps of the photographers and their studios — have been exhibited. Explanatory text tells the story of this important period in Cuban history.
Sellers goes into the kitchen to make a pot of lemongrass ginger tea in a Japanese pot. There, little blue cups hang over the window and flatware is artfully arranged with the eye of a collector. An assembly of salt and peppershakers line the window ledge. Letting in filtered light is a stained glass window made by Sellers’ oldest son, 33, while a student at Rhode Island School of Design — he now lives in Rome where he designs motorcycles.
“There comes a time where you deaccession and lighten the load,” says Sellers. “We’re not there yet, but we’re no longer collecting.”
The Philadelphia native, raised in Levittown, Pennsylvania — his father worked for Rohm and Haas Chemical Company while his mother took care of things at home — studied political science and political philosophy at Rider, where he met Kathy, an English major who became a Montessori School teacher. Both worked at Firestone Library after graduating, and Sellers took graduate-level classes at the Woodrow Wilson School.
Sellers went on to a job in Trenton, providing employment and training to at-risk youth, and from there earned a master’s degree in public administration, with a focus on financial management and budgeting, at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. This led to a 25-plus-year career in finance for states, counties, and municipalities.
But ever since high school, Sellers had demonstrated ability as an artist, encouraged by his parents, and was given a solo show in the gallery at Rider in his senior year, followed by exhibits at La Salle University, other venues in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the gallery in Firestone Library, from the mid to late 1970s.
Along the way he became interested in the history of printing, letterpress, hand-binding, and book arts. Being a collector by nature, he began accumulating presses and metal type, teaching himself from printers’ manuals, learning graphic design and typography. “I collected a working library to educate my eye,” he says.
When his children were small he printed occasional ephemera, but by the early 1990s he became serious. His company, Pied Oxen Printers, creates and publishes letterpress limited editions of contemporary poetry. Collaborating with an artist in the production of original graphic art designs, Sellers hand-sets the metal type and prints and binds each limited edition book.
Among the poets he has worked with are Reginald Gibbons, Jorge Guillen, Gary Snyder, Susan Hahn, Bei Dao, Paul Muldoon, Clayton Eshleman, Adrienne Rich, and C.K. Williams, and the titles are in the special collections of the British Library, National Library of Ireland, the Morgan Library & Museum, New York Public Library, and university libraries at Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Texas, University of California, among others.
From fall, 2010 to spring, 2015, Sellers was a visiting artist in the typography studio in the visual arts program at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where he taught the letterpress sections of courses in graphic design, produced the annual Phi Beta Kappa poem, and instructed and advised the student-run Letterpress Club.
To provide storage for his collection of presses, including the etching press once owned by Bernarda Bryson Shahn, the artist and wife of Ben Shahn, massive paper cutters and book binding board chopper, as well as space for a studio, Sellers built a post-and-beam barn in his backyard over the course of nine years with help from his sons. It looks like a brand-new vintage barn, with wooden beams, cast iron stove, and many more Buddhas (he’s not a Buddhist, he just collects Buddhist art, book covers, and woodblocks), as well prints by Jacob Landau and Leonard Baskin, among others.
But back to the Cuba photographs: Because of Sellers’ interest in political theory, he began reading books on the Cuban Revolution in the late 1990s. Looking at photos online, he found some for sale and bought them, which got him interested in buying more.
“Historic photos can tell a story,” he says. “I started researching and found the Cuban Revolution to be a complicated story. I set out to find photos that had artistic merit — good composition, technical, and aesthetic aspects — and also that said something about the period from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. It’s hard to know when a revolution starts and ends.”
Many were purchased online and through dealers in the U.S. and Canada. All were printed by the photographer or the photographer’s studio, and a good number of them have the stamp of the photographer or studio. Many are small, and were not printed to be art — this was photojournalism, done for magazines, newspapers, and books. When he is not exhibiting the photos, Sellers preserves them in archival sleeves. Although 80 will be exhibited, he has 340 in the collection — all have been digitized both to catalog and preserve them.
The categories into which they have been cataloged are Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Batista, leading commandants, victors, vanquished, and women as militia or who played key roles.
“By digitizing, I can move them around into different categories — this kind of organization is essential to putting together an exhibit as narrative,” says Sellers. “One photo relates more to another, and if successful, the viewer walks away with an understanding of the events.”
Sellers, whose many talents do not include speaking Spanish, used Google Translate to tease the story out of the writing on the back of the photographs.
“Using the right search terms one can find an enormous amount of information online,” he says. This research supplemented the clues on the backs and faces of the photographs.
Alberto Korda became Fidel Castro’s official photographer and friend, and his iconic photograph of the Cuban Revolution is his portrait of Che Guevara, with shaggy mane and black beret — cited by the Maryland Institute College of Art as “the most famous photograph in the world.”
Among the highlights of Sellers’ images of the revolution: A 21-year-young Fidel Castro in a James Dean-style leather jacket, surrounded by a gang; Castro’s two sisters, Juanita and Emma, reading Bohemia magazine while awaiting their brother’s release from prison; then-Vice President Richard Nixon visiting Havana to give Batista the Eisenhower administration’s blessing; images of Che looking everything from bedraggled rebel to a cigar-smoking hero who could be played by Johnny Depp; a crowd of attractive young women and children holding machine guns; Castro staring down a tiger at the Bronx Zoo. One walks away with a lasting impression of men and their beards.
“The story of our beards is very simple: it arose out of the difficult conditions we were living and fighting under as guerrillas,” Sellers quotes Castro (his source is Wikipedia). “We didn’t have any razor blades … everybody just let their beards and hair grow, and that turned into a kind of badge of identity. For the campesinos and everybody else, for the press, for the reporters, we were ‘los barbudos’ — the bearded ones. It had its positive side: in order for a spy to infiltrate us, he had to start preparing months ahead of time — he’d have had to have six months growth of beard, you see … Later, with the triumph of the revolution, we kept our beards to preserve the symbolism.”
“What interests me are the personal images of important people that say something about the Cuban Revolution,” says Sellers. “It’s nice to have a collection, but I want to share this. Since I put it together, there’s a lot more focus on Cuba, and the collection has become more timely. We were stuck in a post Cold War embargo, but now Cuba is moving into the future. No single collection can fairly represent a profound event such as the Cuban Revolution.”
The Cuban Revolution, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Saturday, December 5 through Thursday, January 28, Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reception and the panel discussion, Tuesday, December 8, 4:30 to 6 p.m. Free. wws.princeton.edu/bernstein