Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

the art of serenity

The Museum of Asian Art in Sarasota, an outgrowth of one woman's collection, offers lovers of Eastern art a chance to experience the calm thoughtfulness of other consciousnesses and other cultures.

SARASOTA _ They glow with a silent serenity, these sculptures that speak of spiritual fulfillment.

Standing among them, in the museum's carpeted hush, is their caretaker, a petite woman wearing a beatific smile.

"I never collected for the pretentiousness of it," says Helga Wall-Apelt, in a lilting German accent. "I collected for the peace of mind and the search for truth that was always my motive in life."

For 40 years Wall-Apelt slowly, lovingly built a small treasure trove of Asian art: bronze Buddhas, ancient stone lions, exquisite jade carvings, fierce temple guardians.

Now, Wall-Apelt says, it's time to share these treasures.

"These artifacts are no longer mine," she says. "I want to donate something of powerful, lasting value to this world, to offset the chaos in our lives."

Last month, in a city that prizes art, Wall-Apelt opened the nonprofit Museum of Asian Art to put her collection on public display. It is one of only a few museums devoted to Asian art in this country. (Two notable ones are the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, both at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)

"I also think this (museum) is very unusual in that it was conceived by an individual woman collector," said Ellen Van Dernoot, an Asian art expert Wall-Apelt hired as curator.

Roughly half the objects in the new museum, 65 Chinese jades, were displayed in 1993 at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Most of the others are bronze Southeast Asian sculptures of the 18th and 19th centuries that Wall-Apelt bought from dealers in Europe. A group of Cambodian stone figures date to the 12th and 13th centuries.

All told, it is "a very interesting collection of non-European art," said Mitchell Merling, the Ringling Museum's Curator of Art Before 1900. "It shows the wide range of iconography and the different kinds of religious practices."

Daphne Lange Rosenzweig, a former professor of art history at the University of South Florida who now teaches at the Ringling School of Art and Design and lectures often on Asian art, also praised Wall-Apelt's endeavor.

"She has a very nice eye," Rosenzweig said. "This collection is going to be a wonderful resource for the community."

Gifts from father

Wall-Apelt inherited her appreciation of fine art from her father, a German physician who turned to the study of Eastern religions after losing his career and nearly everything he owned to the Nazis.

"He became very introverted, like a meditating Buddhist. That's how I remember him," Wall-Apelt said.

Her father died when Wall-Apelt was 15, and she inherited his small collection of Buddha images. While she was still a medical student she made her first purchase.

"It was at an international art exhibition in Berlin," she recalled. "I walked right up to this piece and I said, "I have to have it'."

The bronze sculpture is northern Thai, of the Lanna or Chiang Saen style (15th century). It depicts a seated Buddha, legs folded, right hand extended downward in the traditional "touching the Earth" mudra, or hand gesture, which the Buddha is said to have made immediately after his enlightenment.

Light green flecks are evidence of oxidation _ and age.

Many of the Buddha figures, mostly Thai but also one from Burma, are similar _ seated, with half-closed eyes and a slight smile curling the lips. Others are standing Buddhas, the monk's robes falling in graceful folds, one or both hands raised in the "fear not" mudra.

Nearby is a commanding, multi-armed figure: Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion. She is seated, holding a lotus, a beautifully lacquered representative of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

"Things fell into place'

For 35 years Wall-Apelt was an internist and radiologist in Germany. After vacationing in Sarasota for years, she decided to emigrate. In 1993 she became an American citizen. Meanwhile, she had begun to study Oriental medicine and acupuncture, eventually shifting her medical practice from Western to Eastern methods. Today she runs the Center for Traditional Chinese Medicine on S Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.

Almost two years ago, she awoke one morning with an idea that hit her like "a bolt of lightning." She would open a museum to house her art collection.

"I could have auctioned this all off," she said. "Or I could have donated it to some large museum, like the Metropolitan in New York. But I know how much is stored there, how much is lost downstairs. I wanted to be sure people see these artifacts."

She went looking for a location with good security and found 2,000 square feet for rent, next door to a diamond depository, where an armed guard admits visitors through a series of locked doors.

Through friends she found her curator: Van Dernoot, a woman with an intense interest _ and two master's degrees _ in Asian art who had worked at the Sackler and Freer galleries in Washington.

They carpeted and wallpapered the space in peaceful earth tones and had a Ringling artist hand-letter labels for the exhibits. To showcase the smaller jade pieces, they ordered custom-made glass display cases from Germany. For the museum's opening, they invited three Buddhist monks to come and chant blessings.

"Things just fell into place," Wall-Apelt said. "I think because my life has had a very strong intuitive thread. You don't question, you just do things."

So many pieces crowded into a relatively small space means that museum visitors nearly rub elbows with the sculptures. Wall-Apelt doesn't seem worried. In fact, it's even okay with her if someone wants to touch the larger jade pieces that are out on display in the open.

"Jade is an exceedingly hard stone," she said. "And it lives with nature, sunlight, water and sky. It's open to the elements."

The bronzes and stone pieces are more delicate. If school groups tour the museum, Van Dernoot said they might be given cotton gloves to wear so they'll be able to touch the sculptures without damaging them.

Future plans include a lecture series by scholars in Asian art, history, philosophy, science and politics. Exhibits will rotate as well.

"One of our board members has a wonderful collection of Chinese paintings," said Van Dernoot. "And we might do Chinese bronze vessels or a focus on Quan Yin."

The museum plans to apply for accreditation from the American Association of Museums. "Eventually our goal is to build our own building," Wall-Apelt said.

Maybe that explains the offering of a fresh hibiscus flower that rests in the folded hands of one of the Buddha figures in the museum lobby.