Raymond Wielgus and his wife Laura began collecting art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas beginning in the 1950s. Over the next twenty years, the couple would continue to acquire important works of Tribal art, eventually assembling one of the premier private collections of the United States.
“In his own words Ray described his collecting philosophy as the following: My aim in collecting is not to amass a great number of pieces, but to acquire a small group of objects that combine three admittedly intangible characteristics: aesthetic excellence, ethnographic or archaeological importance and that quality perhaps best described by the adjective ‘right’,” says ArtTrak Inc. owner and leading Tribal art dealer and appraiser, John Buxton.
Wielgus spent much of his working career as an industrial product designer before retiring to Tucson in 1970. There in Tucson, Wielgus began turning antique firearms into an artist canvas, engraving ornate designs into the steel, and hammering in gold through damascening - a process of inlaying metal to metal which originated from ancient cultures. Over a 34-year period, Wielgus practiced this artistry, and by the time of his death in 2010, he had a collection of over 60 elaborately engraved art guns.
“Without any training Wielgus decided that he would take old guns and fix them up and then
embellish them with gold,” says Buxton. “As you might expect he had no desire to copy the artists that had gone before him. Instead, Ray was inspired by Art Noveau, Art Deco, and Archaic Chinese designs. By 1974 his first gun was completed and he was on his way to creating an extraordinary collection of totally original creations.”
“Raymond was interested in firearms not for shooting, but as little machines - he described them that way - and he also had an interest in collecting scientific machinery, and things like drawing instruments from 17th/18th century and navigational equipment, so he had an interest in finely made objects of all sorts,” says Jim Cook, artist and long time friend of Raymond Wielgus.
Wieglus’s collection transforms these “little machines” into works of art. Every aspect of the firearms was altered, down to the hand-carved ivory grips, creating a complete metamorphosis.
“I have to say that his taste is very broad, and he used many, many different sources, and some are entirely new inventions, so its fascinating to try and look at these things and try to figure out where they come from. The mechanics of his decorative techniques are very old, very traditional,” says Cook.
It was the newly appointed Cody Museum Curator, Warren Newman, who ultimately helped to ease the minds of both Buxton and Cook, eventually leading them to chose the institution as the place to house the collection.
“Warren Newman certainly deserves a great deal of credit,” says Cook. “He was inspired by the idea of the collection, and I think he was responsible for sort of turning the herd or the stampede in a way; he talked everyone into seeing it his way, and I know that Raymond would be pleased because it was his first choice, and it was John’s first choice and my first choice, so we’re very happy not only with the installation, but with the sprit of the institution. It is the sort of place where the collection needs to be.”
“We have a very large collection of firearms here, and some of them are beautifully engraved and inlayed, but its all pretty much the same in the more traditional foliate engraving, which features a lot of leaves and vines and animal depictions,” says Newman. “The Wielgus guns are engraved in a very unique and special way; he was an Asian and African art collector, and he researched back some three thousand years in artistic styles and developed a unique style, when I saw pictures of it, I
thought what a wonderful thing it would be to have this kind of engraving.”
The museum exhibition - Steel Sculptures: Engraving individuality from mass production - includes 39 of Wielgus’s specially crafted firearms. In order to develop the desired artistic design, Wielgus often modified the functionality of the guns by immobilizing the cylinders that would ordinarily have to rotate to make them work, thus the guns in the Wieglus collection are the only firearms in the Cody Museum’s display that are not fully functional.
“What I wanted to do is to have this display immediately adjacent to the traditional firearm engravings, and the idea was if young engravers, young artists, saw them and could compare the two…then my challenge to them would be to create even more innovative ways of ornamentation for firearms,” says Newman. “We have over 7,000 guns in this collection, and we keep all of them in pristine fully functional condition, so I think that’s interesting because not only are they along side traditional engravings, they’re alongside firearms that are functional, so the shift of emphasis goes from the action of a firearm to the artistry of what’s on the firearm.”
Newman says the reception of the collection has been outstanding thus far. “Its just amazing how many people stop there,” says Newman. “They are passing famous guns, presidential guns, and wonderfully embellished firearms with Western scenes and nature scenes, but once they get closer and closer to the exhibit they are attracted to his firearms as works of art.”
“Raymond viewed these objects as art, not as guns, says Cook. “The fact that they’re guns is important, but immaterial in a sense, and we wanted an institution that understood that this is art, and I believe Cody is that institution.”