The condo is tiny. It's in a part of the city that has not been touched by gentrification—far north and one block off Lake City Way—where the strip malls are old enough to be charming, and the businesses have names like Breakfast Club and Rimrock Steakhouse, and where you can enter these ramshacklish businesses from either the front or the back, lending a Southern atmosphere. Inside the tiny upstairs condo lives Stephen Reip, a Vietnam vet and housepainter by trade. Also inside the tiny condo lives an incredible collection of art—cheek by jowl with the furniture, on top of the refrigerator, lined up on rows of shelves, on both sides of the bed, in the closet, on a side table where you might put your glass of water and not notice a sculpture that a museum would be glad to have in a glass case. Reip has no money to speak of, no great big house, and yet: all this art.
"You know how we can all kind of fritter away money?" Reip asks, sitting in his living room, which is so small, and he is so tall (you easily picture the onetime basketball player high up on a house, painting, the natural extension of a ladder), that it feels almost as if he could lie all the way across it. "But with an artwork, you have it up for a long time, and what it does to your space is amazing. If I took all this away, it would just be a boring little condo."
This particular conglomeration of art is all over the place in both senses of the phrase. The only rule? "It has to be work I can look at and see something different every day." In the bathroom there is a naked woman's torso printed faintly on silk; above the kitchen cabinets are abstract paintings on wood blocks in primary colors (they can be turned any which way, like Rubik's Cubes); at the foot of the bed there is a candy-psychedelic vertical landscape; a large photorealistic painting of Iranian men engaged in some slightly nefarious nighttime meeting hangs where another person might have put a flat-screen TV in the living room; facing it across the room is an austere painting of black marks scattered on a beige surface; next to the main window (blinds drawn) is a large black-and-white photograph of an Asian street kid with arms flung open in a what-do-you-want expression; a hippie-dippy Gumby-bodied metal sculpture taller than Reip overlooks the whole scene from one side of the room; on the other side is a huge neon painting depicting a boomtown of cars and skyscrapers spewing out of a volcano of a city.
Every piece is a story, and the gentle, affable Reip telling the stories has the effect of expanding the condo exponentially, into a full-fledged museum with many corridors. There's the time he was painting a deck in Ballard and noticed some brightly colored, crawlingly crowded little paintings by a guy who had never—and still has never—shown (name: Tom Wilson); Reip bought one for almost nothing, and it sits on a shelf in his condo's entryway right across from a haunting little masterpiece by the Los Angeles painter Llyn Foulkes, who is currently featured in the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Only once has a museum borrowed a painting from Reip to use in an exhibition; it was the Frye Art Museum, and it was a piece from Portland artist Henk Pander's series of warplanes in states of dismantlement ("Mine is a B-52 with the engines sawed off," Reip says). But if more museums knew what Reip had, they might bug him for loans more often. His tabletop sculpture that you might put your water glass next to? It's a perfect little George Herms. Herms is a California beat assemblage artist and musician who's a living legend; this winter, his life was turned into an opera the Los Angeles Times said is "not to be missed." The miniature cardboard staircase leading up to a glowing yellow backdrop that sits on top of his refrigerator? It's an early Scott Fife. Reip went to Fife's current show at Platform Gallery and drooled over a giant cardboard head Fife made of the legendary pop artist Ed Kienholz. "How many thousands of dollars is that now?" Reip said. "I'd have to give my left arm for it."
Some of the pieces Reip owns—by artists including LA realist F. Scott Hess, Oregon painters James Lavadour and Adam Sorensen, and Seattle artists Claudia Fitch, Susan Dory, Cris Bruch, Marsha Burns, Fred Birchman, Jaq Chartier, Michael Spafford, Robert Yoder—were fairly expensive. How does he afford it?
"I'm gonna either paint your house or make payments—that's the only way I can do it," says Reip.
Reip paints the houses of artists, or he paints galleries (he has put the paint on the walls of most galleries you've been to in Seattle), in exchange for works of art; or he uses his monthly art budget, about $300, to incrementally pay off works of art in chunks as small as $100. He has been living simply for 25 years so that he can do this. When he goes on a housepainting job out of town, he lives out of his yellow-and-black VW bus.
Reip is a photographer on the side. (From the artist's statement on his website: "Seeing and being aware of one's surroundings is the underlying focus of my photographs. I find cities, particularly Seattle, to be of unending interest, with more human warmth, humor, and life than is typically associated with them." After Barack Obama was elected, Reip traveled around with a cardboard cutout of the new president, taking snapshots of anyone willing to pose with it.) Back in the day, Reip—a native of Bellingham who grew up mostly in Southern California—went to art school in LA, and very occasionally, artists trade works with him; this is how he got his Marsha Burns. She liked a picture he'd taken of an office building on Queen Anne that always had a blue light on at night.
But he didn't get into collecting through any kind of backstage pass acquired in art school or through connections; he just began looking and talking to people, and he found dealers and artists to be completely open to his curiosity, his desire to barter, and his requests to pay in small amounts on a timeline. He can't help himself; he's a pure art lover. "I admire his get-out-there-and-see-shows kind of mentality, which is something that a lot of other collectors don't seem to have," says dealer Scott Lawrimore, who has known Reip since the late '90s, when Lawrimore worked at Davidson Galleries.
"He's the sweetest guy I ever met," says Richard Thurston of Grover/Thurston Gallery; Reip will paint the gallery's new space next month to get square on a landscape painting. "We all know about fucking Howard Schultz—pardon me—but guys like Steve Reip make it worth living in Seattle still, and I'm glad there's still some of them around. Everybody's like an MBA, or they talk about branding now—I can't even understand them. Reip is a real guy. He's a bohemian."
Reip's bedroom, barely bigger than his double bed, contains 11 works of art. In his barely there nook kitchen, there are six. There's a small stormy landscape painting covering the electrical panel behind his bedroom door (the Lavadour from Grover/Thurston); behind the bathroom door is a placid abstract painting. He doesn't have his eye on anything new at the moment, but it's only a matter of time. He sees everything. He's always looking.
"This is all art that I've collected by just plugging away," he says. "As a collector, you never stop. You never will."