Big Fish Q & A With Collector, Designer and BMA Trustee Stiles Colwill

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If you subscribe to the concept of predestination – a phenomenon immune to scientific scrutiny – then, perhaps, you could make the argument that Stiles Colwill’s given name ordained him to a career in design and connoisseurship, and to an avocation as an art collector. (Of course, you’d need to fudge his name’s spelling a trifle.) 

As founder and proprietor, he oversees the Lutherville-based Stiles T. Colwill Interiors, designing living spaces for local and out-of-town clients, while also operating Halcyon House Antiques and working as a partner with prominent New York City antiques firm John Rosselli & Associates.

Not incidentally, he has served on the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees since 1995, presiding as its chairman until last week when he stepped down after five years. Previously, he spent 16 years at the Maryland Historical Society, starting as an associate curator and concluding his tenure there as its director.

Colwill was born in Baltimore and raised on bucolic, 122-acre Halcyon Farm in Greenspring Valley, where for decades his family bred thoroughbred racehorses (his father, J. Fred Colwill, rode Blockade to win the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1938, 1939, and 1940). Stiles Colwill, 59, only recently discontinued the breeding operation, but he still lives at Halcyon, along with his life and business partner of more than 20 years, Jonathan Gargiulo, plus a menagerie of horses, cows, and dogs. The pair maintains elegant gardens and a home chock-ablock with early American paintings, Maryland decorative arts, and 19th century French bronzes.

Although he has stepped down as BMA board chair, Colwill continues as a board member, helping to shepherd the museum’s fundraising campaign and physical renovations. “Stiles’ dedication to the BMA is remarkable,” notes museum director Doreen Bolger. “He has left a huge mark on this wonderful institution.”      

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence. 

When I look at my glass, it is always more than half full.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they? 

Many people set goals for themselves; I didn’t really. I just always wanted to give back: to my parents, friends, and the community. So rather than goals, I have had rules to live by that were instilled in me when I was very young. One is from McDonogh’s lower school poem: “Be the best of whatever you are.” Another is from my father: “Always be kind to others.” And a third is from my mother: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed? 

It came from my grandfather Tuttle when I spent a summer with him at about age eight: If you want it, go after it. You can do or be anything that you want. All you have to do is try. 

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?

I guess that I have been very lucky and never been given any bad advice.
 
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime? 

While I was not “surprised” by them, I know these to be true and live by them:

Don’t judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to people.
Always be yourself.
Never look back – you cannot change the past.

What is the best moment of the day? 

First light on the farm. It is amazingly beautiful.

What is on your bedside table? 

First, let me say something about the table itself. It came from Andy Warhol’s estate sale, and it was his bedside table before it was mine. I remember seeing it in his house years ago, and it serves as a wonderful souvenir of my time living in New York City. The table always makes me smile and wonder, “What would it say if it could talk?”

On it is a silver cigar box that was the rider’s trophy for the 1938 Maryland Hunt Cup, given to me by my father. It was one of his most treasured possessions – and now, mine, too. Also, fresh flowers from our garden or an orchid from our greenhouse, plus stacks of recent books and trade magazines.

What is your favorite local charity?

The Baltimore Museum of Art.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing? 

Go for it.

Why are you successful? 

Hard work.

What is your favorite piece of artwork (painting, sculpture, installation, textile, furniture, whatever) in the BMA’s permanent collection — and why do you love it so much?

Many people do not recognize this as a work of art, but is it the biggest one in the collection: the magnificent, inspirational BMA building itself — perfectly designed by John Russell Pope. It affects every aspect of the BMA, and I always find new details in it every time that I visit.

What single thing could Maryland’s thoroughbred racing industry do to help save itself, rather than being repeatedly bailed out by taxpayers’ dollars?

The racetracks were successful when operated by great owners like brothers Ben and Herman Cohen (Pimlico) and John Schapiro (Laurel Park). Let someone who is passionate about racing – and deep-pocketed – take over the tracks. Maybe developer David Cordish; let’s see what magic he can make of them.
 
Tell us your most effective universal decorating tip, applicable to living spaces as diverse as urban loft to rural cottage to double-wide trailer to suburban mansion to stately manor.

Make it your own. Always have personal items around. Home is really a nest, and we are all nesters at heart. If you make it personal, you will always feel at home.

1 COMMENT

  1. A wonderful Q & A with Stiles Colwill! I have known him for most of my life and appreciate his friendship, kindness, and generosity.

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