Brooks turned passion into collection

NEW HAVEN — Only a few miles away from the Henry Sheldon Museum sits an 1800 farmhouse, bursting with Bill Brooks’ own collection of masks, statues, paintings, pottery and duck decoys — his personal folk art museum.
Brooks, executive director of the Sheldon, started collecting art in 1968 when he bought his first painting. Since then, he has spent his life in galleries, talking with artists and gleaning a unique assortment of folk and professional art.
Folk art is defined by its cultural purpose and identity, and is often the work of anonymous artists. As Brooks walks around his New Haven house, it’s clear that he knows each artist by name, if not as a good friend.
Much of the art is the product of locals, people who Brooks has met over his many years visiting and living in Vermont.
One such artist is Prindle Wissler, who taught art at Mary Hogan Elementary School for many years. Wissler lived in Middlebury with her husband until her death in 2011 at the age of 99.
“They’re very folk-art-type scenes,” said Brooks of Wissler’s busy paintings depicting life in Vermont.
Throughout the house Brooks also has a number of pieces by John Nace, a former teacher at the Grass Roots and Community Effort in Hardwick. Nace’s work is colorful and focused on animals.
The large painting of a lounging cat hanging above Brooks’ fireplace and the carving of an upright, glaring fox  are only two of the many pieces Brooks has by Nace.
Even outside, Brooks has arranged a family of figures to display his art. Perched on top of four well-dressed bodies are the masks of Deb Smith, a trained psychologist now working as an artist and interior painter. Each clay mask depicts it’s own screaming face, more of which Brooks has hanging inside.
Brooks’ collection also includes the culmination of 40 years of searching for duck decoys. Wooden shore birds sit perched on windowsills, desks and even in the kitchen.
Brooks is still collecting, although he has shifted his attention to the Sheldon in Middlebury these days.
“I just don’t have any more room for any more art,” he said of the walls and tables, chairs and bookcases he has filled.

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