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Couple Donates Abstract Art to Ackland

The Pattons have amassed an impressive collection of abstract art that they are now promising to the Ackland Art Museum's exhibit "Space, Abstraction and Freedom: Twentieth-Century Art from the Collection of Mary and Jim Patton," that opened Sunday.

"I think art, if you let it in, changes how you look at life itself and the world around you," Jim Patton said.

The Ackland currently is showcasing 24 pieces from the Patton collection -- abstract pieces from the late 20th century including artists such as Adolph Gottlieb and David Park. Space constraints at the Ackland prevent the Patton's entire collection from being displayed at once. So the exhibit will act as a preview until the Ackland can expand to house the works.

The Pattons' preference for the abstract genre grew over the years. Jim Patton said they like all kinds of art, but abstraction requires an input from the viewer. "We both have a strong preference for abstraction so we can fill it with our feelings and our interpretations," he said.

"If (viewers) make the effort, they'll find out something about themselves, because that's what they've got to go back into. If they don't find something, maybe that'll tell them something else."

Jim and Mary Patton met as children in Durham. Mary had a talent for art as a child, and after two years at the Women's College (now UNC-Greensboro), finally attended art school.

Jim's artistic interests took a little more time to develop. He graduated from UNC-CH in 1948 with pre-med work under his belt but decided instead to attend Harvard Law School.

He credits his professors here at UNC-CH with opening his mind to possibilities he wasn't aware of during his childhood.

"It was a narrow existence, and it was wonderful to have these incredibly great professors fire up your imaginations and talk about great masters and writers and simply have all that learning around you that you can soak up," he said.

He took art appreciation and figure drawing classes, but after his marriage to Mary in December 1950, their fervor for art really took off. "Maybe I got some of this from her," he said, laughing.

Their first years together didn't involve much collecting. Mary was commuting to the Rhode Island School of Art from Boston, where Jim was at Harvard. Money was tight, but they enjoyed touring shows.

At one show, they liked a painting so much that the artist asked the gallery owner to sell it to them without any overhead, but it was still $10,000. "I don't think we had a thousand, maybe not a hundred. I think we were more intent on how we'd eat," he said.

It was not a problem again. After finishing law school, Jim began practicing international law and went to such locales as Saigon, Vietnam and Washington, D.C.

His later success as a lawyer in his own firm enabled the couple to collect many abstract pieces -- the same pieces they are now donating to the Ackland. Jim serves as one of the museum's board members as well.

He also serves on the boards of many other prestigious art museums but chose to donate to UNC-CH to enable his latter-day counterparts to discover the passions he fostered here a half-century ago.

"Everybody tends to get stuck in a rut, and it's a terrible thing," he said. "There is so much that can fill you -- take these opportunities while you have them."

Jim Patton has now retired from practicing law, and he and Mary split their time between homes in Tucson, Ariz., and Snowmass, Colo. They continue to pursue their interest in all types of art through lectures, reading and supporting institutions such as the Ackland.

While Mary always has been more of the artist, Jim is more of the admirer. He pinpoints one moment in his life where he realized how much art meant to him.

He was in law school, and he stopped by the Boston Museum of Fine Art one day. He sat down in front of a 25-foot long Gaugin canvas featuring Tahitian women stretched out in languor.

"I realized that when I looked at my watch I had lost myself in the painting for over an hour, and that's almost like a religious experience," he said.

This experience is one the Pattons hope UNC-CH students will emulate upon seeing the new additions at the Ackland, one that alters their lives in the way the love of art has altered theirs.

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"It's been a grand experience," he said.

"Space, Abstraction and Freedom: Twentieth-Century Art from the Collection of Mary and Jim Patton" will run through Nov. 11.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at