On most days, you can find Bryce Kalousek-Maritano inside the red caboose on Buchanan Avenue. He perches where a train conductor once sat, ready with a friendly hello from above whenever a customer arrives.
“I’m just sitting up here eating pineapple, drinking coffee, and catching up on news,” he said when I arrived for our interview. He was wearing a tweed blazer, his long hair in a pony tail, and a hat reminiscent of Indiana Jones. He, too, is a sort of academic explorer.
I’d been in Bryce’s shop before, perusing his impressive collection of jewelry and feminist memorabilia. On this particular day, he had invited me to see his family’s collection of feminist art.
“It’s really not appropriate for me to own this collection anymore. It really has become the core of what should be a women’s museum,” he said.
This is what the man in the caboose is doing in Corvallis, looking for a permanent home for his traveling collection – for every piece tells a different story of what it’s meant to be a woman throughout history.
Meet the Kalouseks
“The Kalousek family kind of starts with my grandmother who was a labor union leader in Chicago in the women’s garment district and mostly in the Czech community,” Bryce said, showing me her image on the front of his business card.
Grandma Kalousek also attended salons with visionaries like Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. Bryce went on to describe his own mother as half a dozen well known novelists from the 60s and 70s; Adela Kalousek wrote under many pseudonyms for different genres.
“The sort of labor union leader woman gave birth to the lesbian novelist, and I’m the third generation,” he says.
In some ways, Bryce followed in his family’s footsteps. His parents were blacklisted Hollywood writers who attempted to organize the comic book industry in the 50s and 60s. Bryce has been a strike organizer for the Writer’s Guild of America and the California Teachers Association. But over the years, he’s worn many hats.
In the 80s Bryce had a career in Hollywood, which included writing for the Twilight Zone with George R.R. Martin, and writing movie trailers. He even wrote content for the New Kids on the Block comic book series.
“By 40 [I] got burned out on it and disgusted with it. I reinvented myself as an academic – went back to Berkley and onto grad school at [the University of California, San Diego] – and became a cognitive scientist. I studied neurobiology and how brains work,” he says.
Bryce was a TA for Dr. Elizabeth Bates, a leading researcher in child language acquisition and psycholinguistics, and then went on to teach psychology as a community college professor. An avid reader and researcher himself, Bryce is finding ways to connect his family’s collection and how the mind works.
As we walked from the caboose to his apartment, Bryce explained his theories behind symmetry and beauty.
“The question is, does wearing a pair of ball shaped symmetrical earrings on each lobe actually change how symmetrical you look? Does it really work on other people’s minds to make you appear more symmetrical or more beautiful? So, it’s really asking the question, do earrings work?” He mused.
He went on to explain that, from the anthropological lens, the laws of sympathetic magic show that if two things are alike, they have power over each other.
“Every piece of jewelry works the same way,” he said. “If you’re next to something valuable, it makes you more valuable.”
These are the kind of ideas Bryce mulls over as he spends his days “wading in jewelry,” and when he comes home to his makeshift gallery.
“Let me be clear on this. On the planet earth, two people have seen the Kalousek collection of art,” Bryce said, as he led me up the flight of stairs to his apartment.
It was a small and simple place that barely seemed to contain Bryce’s large stature, let alone the countless works of art in his living room.
“There’s kind of a flow of the history of modern art here. You go from realism to expressionism to cubism,” he said, pointing to pieces lining the floor and window sills. “The whole point of the show is it should be inspirational.”
Many of the images were portraits spanning the 1700s to present day. A lot of what Bryce has collected aren’t famous pieces, but they depict a part of history that’s worth remembering. He referred to one painting as terrible in execution and an important piece in the same breath. It’s a hundred-year-old painting of a women’s labor meeting. Other works are more clearly valuable, including paintings by Belgian surrealist Suzanne Van Damme.
Beyond paintings, Bryce has hoards of textiles, many of which haven’t even been unpacked. Some of the smaller paintings and textiles – mostly doilies – are currently for sale in the caboose, but Bryce has mixed feelings about parting with them.
“This would be better not coming from me, but, just as women are stronger if all working together, the collection is stronger if it all stays together,” he said.
He also pointed out that the collection isn’t rampant with female nudes, or women being sexualized. The portraits capture a truth about women: each one is unlike the one next to her, yet there is a shared history, a shared struggle.
“I try consciously as a collector to get as many things by women artists as possible. The thing I refuse to deal with is male prurient interests. I’m not collecting sexy women painted by men.”
As we discussed the content of each piece, Bryce examined a glaring flaw with the collection, particularly when looking at the cameos.
“It’s awfully Euro-centric because those tend to be white women. I’ve gone out of my way to try to change that, but that becomes problematic as well. If I’m scouring the thrift stores of the black community looking for images of black women, that’s pretty much cultural appropriation – as textbook as you can get,” he said.
It’s part of why he wants a team to build the Women’s Museum, a diverse group that can work together to create something representative of all women and perspectives. Bryce cited many reasons why this is not a job for one person, especially him.
“I don’t know how to matte or frame a painting. I am sloppy. I dribble coffee and smoke on things. I’m not the guy that should be conserving a $10,000 piece of paper,” he said.
The question remains: is Corvallis the right place for this endeavor?
Starting a Women’s Museum in Corvallis
Those who have visited the Curiosity Shop know the value of what Bryce has brought with him – they know we’re lucky to be one of many places the Kalousek collection has landed. But when asked about how his business is doing, it’s not a pretty picture.
“[I’m] treading water, trying not to go under. I’m 10 days late on my rent here. I go to work all day, I stay there all day, and I rarely see anybody… When I take a day off to reach out to academics or the community, it costs me so instantly,” he said.
Bryce knows that his shop has always done better when it’s not a destination. In fact, he’s used to supporting communities in a more holistic way.
“This has been an activist business since the beginning. The Curiosity Shop started out as a fundraiser for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom during the Vietnam War. We made wire peace symbols. So, this isn’t anything new for the Curiosity Shop, but the idea of a women’s museum, that’s a pretty new one,” he said.
Bryce describes his collection as a museum in a box – ready to go – except for one vital detail. In order to be the Corvallis Women’s Museum of Art, there would need to be local artists represented. Thankfully for Bryce, there’s no shortage of artists in town.
But he can’t just give the collection to the city – his entire life is wrapped up in every original painting and embroidered fabric in the spaces he inhabits. What he would be willing to donate is the jewelry – the largest collection of costume jewelry in the world – which could be sold to fund the museum. But he’s open to other ideas.
Beyond jewelry, textiles, photographs, and other art, Bryce has a lot of important documents, magazines, pins, comic books featuring women’s lib, and collectible cards. There’s even a set of tennis racket covers featuring caricatures of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, showing the absurdity and historical significance of their famous match, the Battle of the Sexes. Every piece Bryce owns captures an important moment in time, and that is something he doesn’t take lightly.
“You can see what I mean when I say this doesn’t belong in my living room. I don’t even come in here other than to work, because it’s oppressive. It’s overpowering,” he said as he pulled more pieces from his trunk, alluding to even more just out of sight.
Bryce hopes to be the last Kalousek with such a responsibility – the last of his family to be the guardian of such important relics from women’s history. That responsibility belongs to someone else now.
By Anika Lautenbach