“The Right Reason”
A Conversation With
Rachel Perry

by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater

Fate is a very mysterious thing. It can take your life down paths you never anticipated. Such as when a tree fell over in front of the T.C. Steele Historic Site blocking the road.

Rachel Perry thought she’d use the site’s driveway to get around the obstruction. That’s when she noticed a man flagging her down. When she stopped he asked her if she wanted a job removing the tree. That led to more work around the site. “I was shoeing horses at the time, which is seasonal, and it was getting to be winter, so I thought, ‘I’ll try it for a little while.’

“There were only two positions at that time: the site manager and the person who did everything else,” Perry says. “I did a lot of cleaning and giving tours. That summer I did a lot of mowing. I really enjoyed it.”

Perry had been working as a farrier. “Although I did the horseshoeing for ten years, it was not something that came naturally to me. It was always a struggle. You need to be close to the ground and have a lot of upper body strength. I never had either one of those things. So my knees were always bothering me. It was a great job, I made friends that I still have today, but I just couldn’t continue to do it. Also,” she adds laughing, “I hardly made any money.”

Working at T.C. Steele awakened a dormant interest in history and the visual arts. “Being in T.C. Steele’s house and cleaning it every day was like…the sense of place was magical. I wanted to stay so I clawed my way up to assistant site manager. I was there for ten years.”

A problem arose. “I was informed that I would not be promoted to site manager until I had my undergraduate degree. So I went to night school at Indiana University for eight years and got a degree in general studies.

“When I got my degree I had that momentum going and I thought, ‘You know, if I’m going to get a graduate degree I should continue,’ so I enrolled in a program at the University of Oklahoma. I spent five years getting a master’s degree.”

It was while she was finishing this degree that Rachel heard the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was looking for a chief curator for the state’s historic sites. She applied for and got the job and was soon making the daily commute to Indianapolis. “The thing I resent most about the commute is the time it takes. It’s three hours out of every day.” On the other hand, “I can’t hang around in the office later than I’m supposed to because I need to get home and feed the horses. In some ways I think that’s good. It’s two separate lives. You come home to Brown County and you’re in a totally different environment.

“Most people think I’m completely nuts,” she adds. “They think I should move up to Indianapolis and give this up. I just can’t do it.”

Today Perry’s title is Director of Indiana State Historic Sites. “We have sixteen different historic sites all around the state and maintain ninety-six historic buildings. They range from Mississippian Indians to the Grissom Air Museum, which has helicopters from the Vietnam War. It’s not much different from any other management job except I have to deal with a lot of state regulations that are very constricting. If you don’t know all those rules, regulations, and procedures you can get yourself in hot water pretty fast.

“I think the biggest challenge for almost any management position is figuring out how to motivate people and how to be a human being without seeming too vulnerable.”

Rachel has helped with any number of books about art in Brown County, including The House of the Singing Winds, and The Artists of Brown County. She has just published a book of her own, Children from the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz, a story that grew from her master’s thesis. The books can be purchased at the Artists Colony Inn at the corner of South Van Buren and Franklin Streets.

It is the first release of Artists Colony Inn & Press, owned by Jay and Ellen Carter. “Ellen Carter has always been a huge fan of Ada Walter Shulz’s paintings. Jay and Ellen are devoted art collectors. Jay has 64 million irons in the fire. The fact that he can bring things to fruition is really amazing.”

In May of 1998, Rachel used her expertise in the life and work of Ada Shulz to organize an exhibit of her work at the Indiana State Museum. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Brown County Art Renaissance Weekends.

Which is fitting when you realize that Rachel is the grandniece of the Italian Renaissance art connoisseur Bernard Berenson. I ask if his work has influenced her.

“I consulted with a couple of his books when I was trying to figure out how to date Ada Shulz’s work because the big challenge was that she never put any dates on her paintings. Berenson had suggestions for how to do this. Dating is similar to authenticating paintings because you’re looking for certain characteristics in the work that you can find in common with them all. I wasn’t very successful with Shulz,” she confesses.

“People who see Shulz’s paintings really enjoy them. She just hasn’t been exposed to an art collecting audience beyond Indiana until the last ten years. I think that’s one of the things that’s driving her prices up so radically.”

Rachel is also a regular contributor to Our Brown County where she focuses on the local art scene. “There is a lot of good art out there made by very dedicated, sincere, people. I’m very impressed with what they’re doing.

“I think it’s important for people to know that they can buy art from a contemporary artist that’s just as good as historical art,” she adds. “In a way it’s more fun because you don’t know if it’s going to be super-valuable in fifty years. But if you buy art for the right reason, which is because you like the piece, you can’t lose.”

Perry grew up in Bloomington but her parents owned a small summer home near Yellowwood.

“Yeah, I first came to Brown County because it was a cheap place to live,” she laughs. Soon after she bought land of her own where she built a house, doing much of the labor herself. “I’m very attached to Brown County now. It’s not just living in the woods but the people, even though I don’t see them on a daily basis.”

I ask Rachel about her first love—horses.

“I was over at a friend’s house the other day and his friend has a daughter who’s thirteen and crazy about horses. Being crazy about horses is something you’re born with. It doesn’t have anything to do with preference. I was absolutely nuts about horses from the day I was born. I told him not to discourage her because if your child is passionate about anything it will be something they’ll have all their life. I’m convinced that’s why I stay healthy, I have to get out and shovel manure twice a day and schlep hay around. You have to do it every day, summer and winter. It makes you stay physically active.”