Tuesday, October 14, 1997
Mr. Painter's wonderful open secret

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

John Painter always seemed to have something special, but I didn't know exactly what it was. He was decisive and well-connected. But that wasn't it.

It was something more. We worked together for a time on a hospital board. And despite the upheaval in the health-care industry, he never seemed to forget why we really were there. Not just money. Not just organization. Sick people.

He was good about attending meetings, too, which might not seem like a big deal, except that while wrestling with the future of managed care, he was traveling the world as Eagle-Picher Industries' president and CEO.

But his real passion was not hospitals or fabricated metals or even the future of either one. He has spent the last 34 years looking for the past. And finding it in a spectacular way.

It started with a little digging in Arkansas near the Oklahoma border, where he found some ''rocks,'' arrowheads and a stone hammer. He might have been just another dabbler, except that he read a book. Then another. He was in it for the long haul.

Searching for soul

For instance, it took him 15 years to persuade a German woman to sell him a collection of etchings, depicting the Plains Indians.

''Patience,'' he says, ''is absolutely mandatory.''

As usual, it was not money. Not to the buyer. Not to the seller. It was the people and their history.

''I wanted to see these people as they had been before we took their soul and their land,'' he says. ''I wanted to see them when they still felt good about themselves.''

Mr. Painter admires, he says, the Indian's honor. ''Things I learned were a good influence when I was in business.''

Sort of a secret edge, you might say. Besides, on a tough day, he could push aside the bean counters and ''come home to my Indians.''

It's no fun to find something wonderful and keep it to yourself, so he wants everybody to see his collection.

Tribes of the Buffalo: A Swiss Artist on the American Frontier is on view until Nov. 30 at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

If you go, look for a tall, handsome man. He's imposing, well over 6 feet. His hair is nearly gray, with only an occasional mutinous dark curl.

Celebrity collectors

Retired now, he goes there to see what we see, or maybe if we see. He walked me through the exhibit, 81 aquatints by Karl Bodmer and 117 objects, including clothing, household items, weapons and children's toys. Scholars praise this collection as one of the best in the world.

These days, celebrities such as Ali McGraw, Forrest Sawyer, Robert Redford and George Harrison collect Indian artifacts. They're too late. Mr. Painter's North Dakota war shirt and grizzly bear claw necklace just aren't available anymore. For any amount of money.

The best part is that you can look at the exquisitely detailed aquatints by Mr. Bodmer of real people he met on a trip up the Missouri River in 1832. Once you see them dancing, holding their kids - know them a little - it's a lot more interesting to look at their clothes and tools.

Mr. Painter points to a handsome portrait of Mato-Tope or ''Four Bears,'' an important Mandan chief. Three years after he posed, he was ravaged by pox. His dying words: ''Even the wolves look away from my face.'' Of the 2,500 Mandan nation, all but 12 perished in the epidemic.

Next, we walk to a display of moccasins, seven pairs beautifully adorned with beads and fringe. The eighth pair is, he says, his favorite. Made from scraps, they are lined with buffalo fur. He likes to think of the woman who made them - not for ceremony, but to keep her feet warm.

So, John Painter is the man who expanded his company into Europe and Japan. It is not such a stretch to imagine that, in learning to honor an American culture not his own, he might have learned something that helped him deal with the Japanese or the French. Or his next-door neighbor.

Anyway, for once I was right. John Painter has something special. And, if you care to look, you can have it, too.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE